Monday, August 31, 2015

The Limits of American Exceptionalism

This first appeared in Asia Times.
Former Vice President Dick Cheney and his daughter, Liz, published their essay in praise of American exceptionalism (WSJ, 8/29/15) on the same day Asia Times posted Alexander Casella’s criticism of America’s Middle East policy. The contrast would have been amusing except the toll of human suffering attributed by Casella as horrible consequences of American acts of exceptionalism were too much to bear for any one with a conscience and moral scruples.

Casella spoke of the unintended devastation caused by American military incursions into Iraq and Libya. Knocking out the tyrants with the exceptional American firepower was the easy part, the part that the Cheneys adore. Maintaining order and keeping the countries from falling apart has not been as easy, and that’s the part the Cheneys don’t give a hoot about or take any responsibility for. 

Yet, the chaos from destabilized Iraq and then neighboring Syria and Libya have resulted in the deaths of untold thousands of refugees due to drowning at sea or suffocation on land. According to the UN, 60 million people are on the run seeking safe havens. The U.S. created the mess but it’s the Europeans that are left to deal with the humanitarian crisis. The human tragedy being played out now does not concern the Cheneys; they are looking for other places to throw their exceptional weight around.

The purpose of the WSJ piece was to let the Cheneys, under the guise of extolling the virtues of American exceptionalism, rant against Obama’s foreign policy for not being tough enough. Ironically, in Libya Obama and Hillary Clinton followed the Bush/Cheney script for Iraq. Just as tragic, Obama left Libya in as much disarray as Bush did in Iraq.

It's about time America learns that breaking a vase is easy, but holding it together after the breakage is a challenge. It is hard to know how long the U.S. can remain exceptional if we continue to listen to the likes of Dick and Liz Cheney and their ilk and to act on the principle that might is right and damn the consequences.


Monday, August 17, 2015

Abe's speech gets a failing grade

This commentary first appeared in China-US Focus.

Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s speech on the 70th anniversary of the end of WWII proves that he is master of words that couldn’t be reduced to substance.

The past PM Tomiichi Murayama, in contrast, gave the 50th anniversary speech that was 60% shorter, yet was met with more favorable reaction around the world.

The biggest difference was that Murayama expressed his personal “deep remorse” and “heartfelt apology.” Abe acknowledged, “Japan has repeatedly expressed the feelings of deep remorse and heartfelt apology,” but made no personal connection to expressions of regret.

In Abe’s near 1700-word, rambling speech of regret, there were phrases here and there that might appeal to those listening intently for a breakthrough in Japan’s attitude about WWII. But the listeners would find no breakthroughs and plenty of fodder for objections.

He began his speech reviewing his version of history that led to Japan becoming the aggressor of WWII. In summary, the colonial western powers with their protectionist economic policy caused Japan to take “the wrong course and advanced along the road to war.” In other words, the West forced Japan into becoming the aggressor.

Abe barely acknowledged the comfort women issue, the one major issue that has bedeviled Japan’s relations with Asia and the one (of many) issue that Japan has not been able to come to grips with. 

Abe said early in his speech, “We must never forget that there were women behind the battlefields whose honor and dignity were severely injured.” Does that mean he was admitting that Japan forced young women and girls into sexual slavery and ruined their bodies and dreams of future?

Toward the end of his speech, he said, “We will engrave in our hearts the past, when the dignity and honor of many women were severely injured during wars in the 20th century.” That was it, his total reference to the comfort women issue.

There was a paragraph of remarkable double talk that’s one heck of a head scratcher. He said, “We must not let our children, grandchildren, even further generations to come, who have nothing to do with that war, be predestined to apologize.”

In practically the same breath, he then said, “We have the responsibility to inherit the past, in all humbleness, and pass it on the future.” Huh? Double huh? This is the kind of double speak that leaves plenty of room for future interpretations and misinterpretations.

He didn’t even make passing references to all the atrocities committed by the Imperial troops. His reference to Japan’s unpleasant past was as artful as Hirohito’s national proclamation in admitting defeat.

It has become increasingly obvious that Japanese politicians and government leaders need help in crafting a straightforward, mince no word apology that would be as effective as Willy Brandt’s act of contrition by kneeling before a monument in Warsaw’s Jewish ghetto.

How should an apology sound that would finally put the history of WWII in the rear view mirror for the people of Asia and Japan as well? I have a version to propose to the leaders of Japan.

“To the people of the world, as the Prime Minister of Japan, I wish to apologize to you on behalf of Japan for all the wanton acts of war and brutal crimes against humanity that the Japanese imperial forces committed during World War II.

“I apologize for the destruction of property and killing of innocent civilians.

“I apologize for the rape and murder of women and for forcing young women of all races into sexual slavery in the military brothels that were organized by Japan’s military.

“I apologize for the biological and chemical warfare Japan launched in China and for the live biological experiments conducted on POWs and civilians.

“I apologize for the inhumane hardships that civilians and POWs endured in slave labor camps for the duration of the war.

“I urge all relevant Japanese organizations to quickly make amends to any survivors and heirs of the victims from the aforementioned atrocities.

“I solemnly swear that to ensure history is not repeated, the textbooks in Japan shall describe the unvarnished truth of the War in full and without distortion.”

My version of apology consists of less than 200 words, less than 1/3rd of Murayama’s and about 1/10th of Abe’s. I’d wager less is more. A simply worded apology with clarity and absent of obfuscation would finally put the memories of WWII to rest.

Willy Brandt will be remembered for his act of reconciliation. A place of immortality awaits a courageous leader from Japan for an act of genuine atonement.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Norman Hsu, the ghost of US elections past

First appeared in Asia Times. 
The resurfacing of Norman Hsu reminds us that he was a well-known bundler for Hillary Clinton just two election cycles ago. Today he is ensconced in prison making $40 per month as a high school tutor for his fellow prisoners.
By giving his first interview since he was convicted and sent to prison (WSJ, 8/12/15), we are reminded that he once lived the American dream. He took money for the gullible promising handsome returns. He then gave some to the politicians. The photo-ops with politicians gave him credibility, which enabled him to take more money from more gullible people.
Instead of merely taking money from the later investors to pay off the early ones, his cutting politicians in on the take gave his Ponzi scheme an extra twist. OK, according to the Journal article, he didn’t siphon from funds he raised so much as he badgered his investors into making political contributions directly to the candidate. After all, he was making so much money for the suckers that they should be happy to donate just to stay on the good side of Hsu.
Norman Hsu and Hillary Clinton at 2005 fund raiser
Norman Hsu and Hillary Clinton at 2005 fund raiser
As anyone running a Ponzi scheme can tell you, you have to bait your scheme by giving away money to early investors in order to establish credibility. Hsu gave money to politicians and gained even greater credibility and faster.
At the time of Hsu’s arrest, the mainstream media made a big deal out of his being a Chinese from Hong Kong. Rush Limbaugh among others suspected conspiracy from the sinister Mainland China. The anti-China hysteria raised during the Wen Ho Lee scandal and alleged campaign finance irregularity had not yet gone away. If some white guy had tried the con, the case would have been nowhere near as sensational.
Being Chinese had nothing to do with Hsu’s con. He was simply taking advantage of the flaw in the American political process. He understood that politicians gravitate towards the rich and famous, because the rich and famous can write big checks and can influence others to do the same.
If the campaign fundraisers are really good at it, they are called bundlers. If they step over a fine line and violate the law, they become launderers. Successful bundlers get recognition and status. If the candidates they support get elected, they get appointed to positions in the government. At the very least, they get access and can claim to have influence in high places.
This is the American democracy in action. It’s all about money. To get elected, the candidate has to raise lots of money. Once elected, the successful candidate has to raise more money so as to scare potential rivals into not running against him or her again. The strength of any candidacy is measured by the amount money in his/her war chest.
Today only money talks. Hsu simply used the system to create a new persona for himself. Others have done the same before him and others will follow. If they are not ethnic Asians, they will not be noticed.
Media’s attention has focused on the scoundrel but not the system that makes such scoundrels possible. Yet it is the system that is corrupt. In America, democracy is no longer one person, one vote. It is $1 million (or some amount depending on the office but increasing with every election) one vote. It is not possible to even run for local city council without raising a lot of money. Small wonder, public interest and voter participation is declining.
It’s laughable to go around the world telling others to be more democratic and be more like us when our system is badly broken and not one any other country would wish to emulate.

Monday, August 10, 2015

Innovation from China bodes ill for Silicon Valley MNCs

This first appeared in online Asia Times.
Last week the Technology section of the Wall Street Journal devoted three full pages on Asia, mostly on China.  The reports on technical advances in China should put to rest the often stated but erroneous conclusion that China can copy but can’t innovate.
We learned from interviews of technology luminaries in China that homegrown techno-entrepreneurs in China are proliferating exponentially. These are not returnees as was the case a decade ago. The new entrepreneurs cut their teeth working for established technology giants such as Baidu and Tencent, and are ready to strike out on their own. In contrast to Carly Fiorina’s silly Iowa stump speech, these young entrepreneurs haven’t been to Silicon Valley much less stealing crown jewels from America.
Kai-fu Lee used to lead Google’s effort in China. He resigned in 2009 to start Innovation Works as a boot camp to teach bright but basically greenhorn graduates on what it means to be entrepreneurial. Not any more now. As he said in the Journal, “The number of serial entrepreneurs is going up. People are not afraid of failing, they are ready to try again.” Not afraid to fail is what used to set Silicon Valley apart from anywhere else, and change is the one constant about China.
Besides Lee, two other former Google executives were prominently featured in this issue. Hugo Barra has been recruited to help Xiaomi battle for world market share in smart phones. Nikesh Arora has been designated heir apparent to Masayoshi Son at Softbank and is active in managing their investments in China and India.
These three accomplished individuals reflect a development not often mentioned, namely some are now finding more appealing opportunities in Asia than in Silicon Valley. (Incidentally not long after Kai-fu left, Google shut down their operations in China.)
China’s emerging success in technical innovation portends uphill battles for Silicon Valley companies. China has become a major market for high tech products especially in the mobile space. Most of the indigenous innovations focus on addressing their domestic market. One of their major comparative advantages is their intuitive understanding of how the market in China differs from the West — a grasp frequently eluded the MNCs (multinational corporations).
In the early days of China’s economic reform, Beijing understood that leading edge technology came from the West and Silicon Valley companies, as leaders in technical innovation, were warmly received. As China’s homegrown talent became increasingly successful and China’s technological development began to catch up, Beijing can feel more confident with policies favoring domestic companies over the multi-nationals from Silicon Valley.
Recently, IBM’s CEO went to Beijing to pledge on transforming their presence into a local company. Google, of course, went the other way; they picked up their marbles and went home. In between the two approaches sat some of the best-known names from Silicon Valley.
By way of one apocryphal story, a recent returnee back to Silicon Valley after a stint in China confided that his company’s revenue from China that used to be in the billions has fallen to just 35% of what it was at the height of its glory days. Not that the market has shrunk but that local companies are taking increasing bites out of the growing business.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Chinese in Silicon Valley

This was first posted in Asia Times, on August 4, 2015, a day ahead of the extensive 3-page coverage by WSJ on innovation in China.
Silicon Valley, where I live, is a truly unique place. Nowhere, not even in the U.S., comes close to replicating the mystique of SV. Proof? The entire Bay Area make up roughly 2% of the U.S. population, yet every year, virtually 35 to 40% of all the venture capital invested in the U.S. end up here.
Of course I do not mean to imply that by drinking the water in SV, the Chinese engineers suddenly transform into phenomenally successful entrepreneurs. I do mean that the culture and environment here fosters and supports rampant entrepreneurs, and anybody with talent and drive can be successful, not just the Chinese.
It’s true after Deng’s reform, that some of the best and brightest were among the early batch to come to SV for further education and stayed to become successful founders of high tech companies. However, increasingly the later batches that came out for further education are finding that the classmates that did not get to go abroad but stayed behind are enjoying more successful careers than they are.

It would be incorrect to imply that China’s political climate is somehow stunting the development of Chinese entrepreneurs. Home grown companies such as Huawei, Xiaomi, Tencent, Baidu, and others are testimony that Chinese entrepreneurs can thrive anywhere.

China's reality then and now

This was first posted on Asia Times

While Greece consisted of tiny city states killing each other for supremacy, China was already made up of regional kingdoms killing each other for supremacy. Alexander of Macedonia (if he can be regarded as Greek) unified Greece before Qinshihuang unified China. Alexander’s empire fell apart upon his death. Same happened to the Qin empire, except the first emperor of China left a legacy system of government that lasted for the next two thousand years.
When Rome became the mega center of the West, it could not hold a candle to the then contemporary Xian, the first city to reach a million in population and the major center of learning hosting scholars from all parts of Asia. To this day, Confucius’ thinking and rules of honorable conduct still influence the civil societies in Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Vietnam and the Chinese diaspora. Give or take, that adds up to more than 1.5 billion people.
True, the Greeks introduced the concept of democracy to the world, but it took thousands of years later for the US Supreme Court to perfect the practice with the injection of money. In the meantime, China has been making practical innovations that were hundreds if not a thousand years ahead of the West. Joseph Needham devoted the latter part of his life documenting Chinese inventions, a work that has continued after his death and at last count filled 27 books.
Enough about history, what about today? Ever since Deng Xiaoping opened China’s windows to let in western flies, China conscientiously strived to learn from the West, especially from the U.S. Indeed, for three decades, China continuously tweaked their policies and regulations as they learned from western institutions.
The Wall Street induced financial fiasco of 2008 shattered China’s confidence in America as the big brother. Beijing began a plan to isolate, to the extent possible, China’s economy from being swamped by the American tsunami. Their heavy infrastructure investments since 2008 has given China first rate network of high speed railroads and super highways.
China is now going around the world to apply the skills and experience they gained from their domestic projects. The Chinese are talking about a second trans-America canal through Nicaragua, a trans-Amazon high speed rail from Peru to Brazil, and most fantastic of all, a high speed rail from China through Siberia, under the Bering Sea, down Alaska and Canada to the U.S.! Whether these grandiose projects will be realized remains to be seen.

Closer to reality are China’s initiatives in the launching of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, the BRICS development bank and the Silk Road initiative over land and sea. Some 57 countries have signed up to be founders of AIIB. Even more are lining up to be included in the road or string of ports investments. The deployment of every jack hammer and pile driver represents the new reality for China.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Deconstructing Hirohito's Concession Speech

This was first posted on Asia Times. NPR "All Things Considered" interviewed me for a short segment on 8/15/15.

Recently, Japans Imperial Household released a DVD set containing a re-mastered and digitized version of Emperor Hirohitos speech that was recorded for national broadcast on the eve of Japans surrender thus ending WWII. The actual broadcast was made on August 15, 1945 marking the official end of the War.

While the release of the improved quality of Hirohitos speech was widely reported, I could not find any official explanation as to the reason for making this version available now. Presumably, it is part of Japans contribution to celebrate or commemorate or memorialize the 70th anniversary of the end of WWII, depending on ones personal perspective.

Having now read the text of the Emperors speech, I have a better understanding of why the self-image of post-war Japan can be so vastly different from the view of Japan by others. I was a child in China during the War. If I grew up in Japan and heard the Emperors speech, I could easily have concluded that Japan was a victim of WWII. Nothing in his speech would suggest that Japan was the aggressor and guilty of provoking the devastating conflict.

The Japanese language is characterized by nuanced, indirect expressions. I recall reading one the old popular business books written to educate gaijins (foreigners) on the subtleties of communicating with the Japanese. The title was something like “Japanese have 16 ways of saying “no,”—none as simple as a straightforward no. Interacting with my Japanese friends, I found that they have many ways of expressing apology and regret but never with seamless candor.

Indeed, we can see by deconstructing the Emperor's speech that "telling it like it is" is not in the Japanese make-up.

First, Hirohito said: “We have decided to effect a settlement of the present situation by resorting to an extraordinary measure.” What he meant was, “We have to surrender unconditionally.”

Next, he said, “We have ordered Our Government to communicate to the Governments of the United States, Great Britain, China and the Soviet Union that Our Empire accepts the provisions of their Joint Declaration.”

The Western powers interpret this statement to mean that the Emperor accepted the terms of unconditional surrender as outlined in the Potsdam Declaration. Yet can anyone expect the ordinary people in Japan to make the same connection from his speech, a speech where "surrender" and "Potsdam" were conspicuously absent? Thanks to the way post-War textbooks are written, most people in Japan have not even heard of Potsdam Declaration.

Then he said, “It being far from our thought either to infringe upon sovereignty of other nations or to embark upon territorial aggrandizement.” He obviously was not referring to Japans invasion and occupation of Manchuria as early as 1931 and certainly not the occupation of Korea since the latter part of 19th century.

And he said, “The war situation has developed not necessarily to Japans advantage.” Certainly a masterful understatement under the trying circumstances he was facing.

Approaching the end of his speech, he said, “We cannot but express the deepest sense of regret to Our Allied nations of East Asia, who have consistently cooperated with the Empire towards the emancipation of East Asia.” This statement neatly encapsulated the myth of co-prosperity Japan used to justify invading and occupying East Asia countries.

The raping and pillaging as the Japanese troops moved into each country was for their own good, to free them from the shackles of white man domination. Politicians in Japan today continues to perpetuate the idea that Japan invaded rest of Asia for their own good, that the Japanese soldiers snatched the possessions from the local people in order to share the wealth with them.

The media simply adored the statement the Emperor made toward the end of his speech, “…to pave the way for a grand peace for all the generations to come by enduring the unendurable and suffering what is insufferable.” The poetic meter of the enduring and suffering tugged at their heart strings and was often quoted and repeated in documentaries and films about the war.

Unfortunately, the context of that quote was to portray the hapless Japanese people as having to endure and suffer the post war trauma of a defeated nation--in others words, another reminder of Japan as a victim of WWII. The Emperor was certainly not referring to the Chinese people having to endure and suffer the eight years of the brutal occupation by the imperial troops before the war ended.

It's customary for victors to write the history. Japan is proving to be the exception to the rule. Whether deliberate or simply inhibited by his cultural upbringing, the ambiguity of Emperor's concession speech--certainly not a legitimate surrender proclamation--has allowed Japan to begin revising history. It’s as if denying all the brutalities committed in the past can exonerate the present from any collective guilt. Just the opposite is true. The people of Asia will continue to remind Japan until there is only one version of the tragic history of World War II.

When will China fail?

First posted on Asia Times, Chatham House Rules.
Funny thing about the prognosticators that predict impending doom for China is that the more wide off the mark they are, the more popular and credible in the mainstream they become. There is this guy who wrote a book predicting the collapse of China about 15 years ago. During that period, China’s economy practically quadrupled. Yet this wild swing and miss, rather than impairing his reputation, seem to enhance his quals and he still writes columns and gets quoted in the major publications. He is living proof that negative statements about China sell in the popular media.
Charlatans aside, honest mistakes in assessing China are most often made by looking at China from a western frame of reference. Some time ago, some China watchers predicted that when China reaches certain per cap income, China will become a democracy. Well, China has exceeded those threshold income and has not given any indications that it is about  to become a democracy (with a capital D). If anything with the continuation of the anti-corruption drive, China is less likely to become a democracy.
I would argue that becoming a democracy is no panacea. Democracy with a big D has not helped the Philippines economically and one can argue that Taiwan’s experiment into a democratic form of government has hindered than helped getting itself out of the economic and social doldrums. Despite one party rule, China’s economy has grown faster than any in history and, according to Pew Research, has the highest percent of population happy with their livelihood and optimistic about their future than any other country in the world.
Perhaps China’s experiment with a stock market with Chinese characteristics is looking a bit shaky lately. I believe what's needed is more transparency on audited financial records of listed companies and investor education so that the punters will begin to appreciate that playing the market like a casino has serious downside. If we can TARP ourselves out of the financial crisis of 2008, I am confident that China will find ways to weather the market volatility.
I am not sure where religion figures in this discussion. Ever since Deng opened China to economic reform, the state control of religion has steadily loosened. The most evident are the flourishing Buddhist temples. Some enterprising monks and their backers, frequently from Taiwan and Hong Kong looking for express checkout to the Western Heaven, are refurbishing temple complexes and turning them into profitable tourist attractions. A western observer may missed this trend being overly focused on the Christian churches, which after all represents only a minor portion of the population.
I agree with you in that I don’t see any imminent collapse, economic or political. If the anti-corruption drive should falter, then I would start to worry.

China and Judaism

In a burst of activity, I wrote a series of short pieces for Asia Times under their column called Chatham House Rules.
China and Jews go back as far as the Tang Dynasty. In those days Jewish traders that plied the Silk Road went into China as part of big caravans–to better defend themselves against bandits–and were frequently part of caravans led by Arab traders. They got along just fine in the interest of “international trade.”
By the Northern Sung dynasty (960-1127AD), a thriving Jewish community existed in Kaifeng, a city south of Beijing that was then the capital of China. From various records, we now know that Jewish traders were granted audience with the emperor who bade them to revere and preserve the customs of their ancestors, consistent with well established Chinese tradition. The synagogue in Kaifeng was built in 1163AD and a Rabbi Levi was in charge of the first congregation.
Apparently the emperor also bestowed seven surnames to eight Jewish families living in Kaifeng. The surnames were Ai, Gao, Jin, Li, Shi, Zhang and Zhao. The descendants today still refer themselves as belonging to “qixingbajia,” seven surnames in eight families. One speculation is that these surnames sounded Jewish.
Of course in more recent modern history, you are probably familiar with the story of the Chinese consul general in Vienna who issued visas to Jews as fast as he could stamp their passport to enable them to get out of Europe ahead of Hitler’s Gestapo. Many of these lived through WWII in a ghetto in Shanghai and had some of their bitter sweet memories of surviving cramp quarters alongside understanding and kindly Chinese neighbors.
After Deng Xiaoping opened China and launched economic reform, Jews from Europe and Israel were among those entering China to begin business relationships. The Chinese basically have not learned to discriminate between a Jewish person and any other members of the white race. If China later became more partial to the Israelis, it was because of the the technology Israel had to offer.

Dr. Wendy Abraham, noted lecturer and authority on Jews in China, has said more than once that China is the only nation in the world that has never persecuted the Jews on account of their beliefs. On a personal note, I have two Jewish brothers-in-law and they both love the Chinese cuisine. Now that’s a tie that binds.