Saturday, May 21, 2016

As Tsai Ing-wen takes over Taiwan, the reality sets in

This was first posted on Asia Times.

Taiwan’s Tsai Ing-wen handily won the January election to become the next president of Taiwan. Now comes the hard part; on May 20 she will take office and govern.

Tsai ran on the platform of keeping the status quo but not accepting the one China principle and not recognizing the 1992 consensus. She is going to find out that there is a price to having status quo across the Taiwan Straits.

“One China” is short hand for the recognition that Taiwan is part of China, a fact confirmed by the U.N. Resolution No. 2758 enacted in 1971. The “1992 consensus” refers to the last summit meeting between the representatives of Beijing and Taipei held in Hong Kong where both sides agreed to “one China” but each according their interpretation as to exactly what that means.

The mutually accepted ambiguity inherent in the consensus allowed Ma Ying-jeou to establish closer ties and economic cooperation with the mainland when he came into office in 2008.

When Ma came into office, Taiwan was in terrible shape. Chen Shui-bian, Ma’s predecessor mismanaged the economy and tried hard to agitate for the U.S. to step in and confront the mainland, a move that only deepened the antipathy of then President, George W. Bush, had for Chen.

There was no communication or economic linkage between Taiwan and the mainland and no respect for Chen. Aside from his hard-core supporters, it was clear that Chen and his family was thoroughly corrupt. As soon as Chen was out of the office and lost his immunity from prosecution, he was sent to jail convicted of a variety of criminal charges.

The eight years under Ma has dramatically altered the cross-strait relationship.  Cross-strait trade has increased to nearly $190 billion in 2015. Since both sides signed the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA) in 2010, bilateral trade has increased by 70% and surplus grown from roughly 2 to 1 every year to more than 3 to 1 in Taiwan’s favor in 2015.

Under Chen’s regime, there were no tourist from the mainland and no direct flights. Now there are 890 cross-straits flights per week from 61 destinations on the mainland. With over 4 million tourist visits, mainland visitors make up 40% of all visits and half of Taiwan’s earnings from tourism.

Unhappily for Ma and his party KMT, he failed to fully explain the benefits of cross-strait collaboration and because of the global financial crisis that coincided with his coming into office, Ma under-delivered on the economic benefits of economic cooperation with the mainland as compared to his campaign promises.

Instead of growing closer to the mainland, the people of Taiwan, especially the younger generation became more antagonistic over the fear of mainlanders dominating the Taiwan economy. It did not helped that the younger generation has been raised on textbooks revised under Chen’s administration—textbooks that refute the historical and cultural ties between the people of Taiwan and the mainland.

Tsai’s dilemma will be finding a way of pleasing her core supporters that do not believe in collaborating with the mainland while somehow maintaining the status quo across the straits. Beijing has already hinted to Tsai that there is no automatic granting of status quo if she is unwilling to concede to the one China principle.

Recently Ma’s lame duck government received an invitation from the World Health Organization to send observers to the World Health Assembly, an annual gathering of nations to discuss problems related to public health. The invite was referred to Tsai’s incoming administration to handle.

For the first time since 2007 when Chen was president, the invitation explicitly mentioned that the invitation was extended to Taiwan under UN resolution 2785. The significance is that accepting the invitation is equivalent to the Tsai government accepting the principle that Taiwan is part of China.

Now that KMT has become the opposition, they are jeering at Tsai’s having to handle the first of likely many hot potatoes. They said that DPP used to castigate Ma for agreeing to the 1992 consensus and now Tsai doesn’t even have the advantage of ambiguity as cover.

Tsai will feel the sting of Taiwan’s lacking international recognition as a sovereign state in other ways.

Recently, a group of citizens of Taiwan were arrested in Kenya and accused of conducting some kind of scam. Before Taipei can intervene, the accused were sent to Beijing for adjudication because Kenya like most members of the UN has no diplomatic relations with Taipei.

Even Japan has not treated Taiwan kindly. Recently, the Japanese Navy seized a Taiwanese fishing boat and demanded the posting of bail bond before releasing the captain of the boat. Some people in Taiwan observed that Japan would not have dared to seize a PRC fishing boat much less demanded a ransom.

On the top of it all, the latest imbroglio being debated in Taiwan is whether Chen Shui-bian will accept Tsai’s formal VIP invitation and attend Tsai’s inaugural banquet. One view is that Chen has been released from jail on medical grounds. Therefore if he is well enough to attend the public event, he is healthy enough to be sent back to jail post haste.

Another view is that Chen’s presence on the head table among former presidents will draw all the media’s attention and deprive Tsai the limelight that she deserves. Chen’s son publicly questioned as to why Taiwan can’t be more like the U.S. where former presidents are honored as a group irrespective of political party affiliation, overlooking his father’s criminal record.

The fountain of pettiness from the Chen’s family never runs dry and continues to spew forth and feed the Taiwan’s morbid curiosity about the former first family.

Tsai is trained in economics and international law. She is bright enough to know that if she cannot successfully stimulate Taiwan’s economy, everything else won’t matter much and she will be a likely one-term president.

The KMT is in such tatters that it’s an opposition that won’t be bothersome to her. Her concern will be finding a way to continue to collaborate with Beijing. Taiwan’s economy is integrated with and dependent on the mainland. She won’t be able to do much to Taiwan’s economy without being an integral part of China’s economy.

The people of Taiwan and on the mainland will be listening intently to her forthcoming inauguration speech to understand her vision of a thriving Taiwan future in interesting times.

Friday, May 13, 2016

Notes of a Chinese American Tourist in Iran

Originally posted in Asia Times.

A 17-day tour of Iran does not a country expert make, but it’s certainly enough to form some meaningful impressions of a country that has been virtually blacked out from Americans’ consciousness since the Iranian Islamic revolution of 1979. As our first visit to Iran, we took a custom tour from Kerman in the south to the oldest port on the Caspian Sea. Thus we got a more in-depth look at Iran than the more customary 10-11 day tours of “history and culture.“
On our first day, we landed at Tehran’s international airport from Dubai via Emirates Air. The morning flight was delayed and by the time we finished lunch, we only had time for one of Tehran’s lesser attractions, the Iran National Museum. As we entered the front garden of the museum, a group of young girls in their school uniforms on an outing saw us and came running to surround us and to give us a raucous welcome. Being on our first day in Iran, we were unprepared for the warm and enthusiastic response.
School girls at the National Museum
School girls at the National Museum
We soon got accustomed to being “accosted” by locals in public places. As we walked on sidewalks, cars would screech to a halt and the (invariably male) driver would lean his head out of the window and shout, “Hello, welcome,” and sometimes “where from?” before driving away. Females took a different approach; they would seek out the women in our group and invite them to be part of their family photos. Being a mixed group of Asians and Caucasians, I think the women viewed us as somewhat of a special souvenir to add to their photo collections.
The Iranians love to take pictures. The younger generation of men and women all seem to have a camera phone, many at the end of a photo stick. Marion of our group quickly caught on and would walk up to groups of women and proactively offered, “Would you like a selfie?” She would be promptly invited to be part of their group photo. They would take the photo with their phone and also one with her smart phone as reciprocating mementos.
Marion So (in white hat) with and Iranian architecture students in Tabriz
Marion So (in white hat) with and Iranian architecture students in Tabriz
We were to have interesting encounters with professional Iranian men and women at many of the famous tourist attractions. We met a pair of twins and their woman friend at the citadel in Shiraz and found out that the parents of the twins live in San Diego. We met two women at the tomb of Artaxerxes II high above the ruins of Persepolis. One of them, the audiologist, was to join us for dinner at our last night in Tehran. They had taken the bus from Tehran, close to 600 miles away, to visit Persepolis. A young couple was spending their honeymoon visiting Masuleh, the one thousand year old, mountainside village, and they approached me to have my photo taken with them. 
Despite the rate of unemployment at over 20%, I got the impression that the Iranians who could afford it, like to spend their time off visiting Iran’s many parks, gardens and other tourist attractions. We saw them at all the stops on our tour. At no time did we feel unwelcome or receive any feelings of unfriendliness from the people we encountered.
Bashing DAESH
The closest conversation we had that could be considered as political was with a mullah at the Quran School in Shiraz with the help of Hassan, our guide who acted as our interpreter. The mullah said Islam is about peace and love of fellow humankind. He pointed out that the Jews, Christians and the Muslims all believe in the same God. He rejected DAESH, his term for ISIS, as an illegitimate form of Islam that must be eradicated. As for Israel, the problem is the continued occupation of Palestinian land by the Israelis. The beginning of the solution has to begin with the return of the land that belongs to the Palestinians, he said.
Mullah at a madrasah in Shiraz
Mullah at a madrasah in Shiraz
We stayed in Tehran, a car congested and noisy city just long enough to visit the Golestan Palace and the crown jewels collection before flying to Kerman, our southernmost destination, to begin our drive back north. From Kerman, our coach took us westward to Shiraz, then northeast to Yazd and west again to Isfahan, then due north to Tehran again. The last leg was northwestward to Zanjan and Tabriz before returning east and south back to Tehran by way of the coast of Caspian Sea. Each leg was 200-300 miles apart. Our zigzag tour left out the northeastern part of the country but covered the heartland of Iran’s historical and cultural heritage.
Tapping qanat tech
As we drove through central Iran and saw endless stretches of arid desert country surrounded by treeless mountains, it dawned on me that qanat was likely the most important engineering invention that the ancient Persians contributed to the world. Aside from being a handy word for the Scrabble player to know, qanat is an irrigation system that can draw water from snow-capped mountains down to towns and villages miles away. The channel has to be carefully sized and gently graded so the water flow will remain smooth (what engineers called “laminar flow”) and not surge or become turbulent and the channel has to be kept underground to minimize evaporation and contamination en route to the final destination. Regularly spaced vertical shafts from the surface allowed for maintenance of the qanats.
The 19th century Shahzadeh Garden in Mahan, where we had lunch on our first outing out of Kerman, was an excellent example of how a qanat can create a beautiful oasis in the middle of the desert. Gushing water cascaded down terraces feeding the flowers and trees that lined both sides of the fountains. The water then exited the garden at the bottom of the hillside and went on to serve the people in Mahan. We were to see other working qanats on other segments of our tour. The qanats reminded me of the karezes in Turfan that we saw while on a tour of China’s Silk Road — same idea with a different name that most likely originated from ancient Persia. 
The Persian qanat is arguably even more significant to the development of the human civilization than the Roman aqueduct. Without the ingenuity of qanats, the arid and desiccated land of central Asia would remain sparsely inhabited to uninhabited, and could not become cradles of kingdoms and civilizations. The idea of the qanat spread from Persia to Syria, Egypt and Morocco in one direction and to Afghanistan and China in the other. The UN finds relevance in today’s working qanats as case studies to help solve the world’s challenges with polluted water.
By the time our coach pulled into Isfahan and drove along the river that bisected the city into northern and southern halves, the parks that lined both shores prompted me to modify my impression of Iran as one endless arid landscape. Tabriz to the northwest was even greener. From Tabriz as we emerged from a long tunnel on the way to Ardabil, we were surrounded by lush forest and were greeted by fog and rain. The countryside along the coast of the Caspian Sea was checkerboards of rice paddies as if we were in China. Because our tour included Tabriz and the Caspian shore, we formed a more complete impression of Iran than those that only saw Shiraz, Yazd, Isfahan and Tehran.
China and Iran
From the sampling of exhibits from museums we visited, I got the impression that the Neolithic people in Iran were capable of producing sophisticated forms of pottery — to my amateur eye, every bit as advanced as those from China and perhaps even more advanced. Later, Persians got to be quite skilled working with stone as can be seen at Persepolis. By the same period as Persepolis, China had already developed the technology for intricate bronze casting that seemed to be missing in the Persian culture.
A Neolithic drinking vessel
A Neolithic drinking vessel
Persians’ skill at pottery making may have served as the basis to later develop the technology for producing brilliant blue and green ceramic tiles. This was to be an extremely useful attribute for producing the tiles needed to build mosques and mausoleums according to Islamic design after the Arabs conquered Persia in the 7th century CE. In fact the mosques and mausoleums in Iran reminded me of the Islamic structures I saw in Samarkand and elsewhere in Central Asia. This should not be a surprise, since at times in history, parts of Central Asia were part of the Persian Empire and other times the ruling dynasty came from Central Asia.
Iran today reminds me of China in the early ‘90s. Iran’s highway system is already first rate and far superior to what China had then but most city streets are as unattractive as any in the third world, full of mom and pop store fronts, randomly arranged with no apparent logic. Some shopping malls are said to be under construction but we did not see any in actual operation. I did see a fair amount of construction activity in the cities, such as building metro stations and high-rise residential buildings. 
A typical street in Tehran
A typical street in Tehran
No transgender toilet issue
Public toilets are reasonably available next to mosques and other tourist attractions as well as the customary service stations. Just look for the ubiquitous “WC” signs. It’s not always clear which side is male and which is female but it doesn’t really matter. Every stall has a door for total privacy. In a way, this is unintentionally more progressive than some parts of the US that debate about which toilets transgenders should go to. In Iran it does not matter. The bad news about toilets in Iran is that they are smelly, nearly as bad as those in China or India. Most are the squat kind and the western sit-down kind is not always available.
The hotels in Iran are not quite ready for prime time. Even the 5-star hotels in the big cities miss certain essential features such as washbasins with working stoppers or face cloths. The sewer system can’t handle toilet paper. The hotels seemed to work on fixed rules: If it’s April, there is only heat and no cool air. The bedding comes with a cozy comforter that can only render a warm room even more stifling. 
If you can overlook some of the less than luxurious aspects of being a tourist in Iran, now is the time to go before all the tourist facilities get built up and the sameness of Europe or the US becomes part of travelling around Iran. It’s also possible that local Iranians will someday not find foreign tourists a novelty and lose their keenness to interact with them. Right now, the Iranians warmly welcome foreign tourists and Iran represents a novel destination for the international traveler.
At present, it’s not possible for Americans to travel in Iran as individual tourists but have to be part of a guided tour. I met a young man from China who was travelling by himself. He had quit his job as a water treatment engineer in Singapore to see the world. He had been through Nepal and India and had already spent 20 days in Iran riding public inter-city buses from south to north and found travel in Iran “easy.” I met Mr. Gong in Masuleh, a World Heritage village not on most tours. He will be crossing the borders to go on to Armenia and then Turkey and Lebanon to complete his personal journey. It’s nice to be young and adventurous.
In China, the foremost must visit attraction is the Great Wall. For Iran it’s Persepolis. Qinshihuang started the Great Wall and united China about 2,300 years ago. Darius built Persepolis as his seat to receive tribute from far flung corners of his empire 300 years earlier than the Chinese emperor. Despite being burned down by Alexander of Macedonia a mere two hundred years later, the remains continue to impress visitors with the grandeur of the Achaemenid empire and the artistry of the stone masons in that era. 
Our tour was designed and arranged by the Seattle-based Caravan-Serai and our guide was Hassan Azadi, a veteran tour guide now an independent contractor living in Toronto who flies to Iran twice a year to work during the high season. Both have been outstanding to work with.
Sidebar: Medical prowess in Tabriz with an American aside
I had the dubious pleasure of having to take advantage of Iran’s medical care system. In the middle of the trip, I experienced pain and swelling on my right wrist. A week of icing and anti-inflammatory medication did not help. When we got to Tabriz, a major city, I asked our guide to take me to a hospital that deals with broken bones. I asked Michael, my brother-in-law, who’s a family practice doctor, to come along.
We got to Shahryar Hospital after 6 pm, Hassan checked with a few windows before finding the X-ray department. He made a prepayment and the female technician took two X-rays of my wrist. A physician on duty reviewed the results and determined that I had a hairline fracture in my capitate bone and recommended a CT scan of the region. Hassan again paid for the CT scan and another technician took the scan. By then it was after 7 pm and the doctors that would put on the wrist splints had left for the day.
The next morning, we went back to Shahryar and Hassan asked to jump the queue because we were part of a waiting tour group. The doctor in charge looked at the X-ray (didn’t bother with the CT scan) and his assistant proceeded to slip a cotton liner over my hand, wrist and forearm. The doctor then went on to apply a quick setting fiber cast over the lining. This middle-aged man had a twinkle in his eye and his demeanor was friendly and reassuring. As he was wrapping the impregnated fiberglass fabric around my arm, I joshed by telling him that I was a professional tennis player. He smiled and rubbed my elbow and said, “Ah, tennis elbow.” We were in and out in 20 minutes and I was, at last, pain free.
My entire medical bill including the unnecessary CT scan came up to $590. The day after I came home I contacted my health care provider, one of the best in the Bay Area, and found out that it would be more than three weeks before the orthopedic specialists would have an opening to see me.
Author getting his wrist cast in Tabriz
Author getting his wrist cast in Tabriz

Is racial bias to blame for the high number of Asian Americans charged with espionage?

This co-authored piece first appeared in the Los Angeles Times.
In recent years, federal prosecutors have brought a number of high-profile criminal cases against Asian Americans accused of economic espionage or theft of trade secrets. Announced with great fanfare, many of these cases later collapsed.
Is it possible that these prosecutions were driven — at least in part — by racial profiling rather than solid evidence? Last year, more than 40 members of Congress sent a letter to Atty. Gen. Loretta Lynch asking that question. The Justice Department has not yet responded, but last month it adopted a new policy requiring experienced national security prosecutors in Washington, instead of local U.S. attorneys, to oversee all espionage-related cases. It's of course too early to know whether this change will reduce the number of problematic cases brought against Asian Americans.
Although theft of trade secrets by foreign countries certainly occurs, the government has focused overwhelmingly on China. Of the 55 trade secret and economic espionage cases involving a foreign country brought since 1997, more than 70% targeted China. The government, however, seems to have a hard time bringing these cases to a successful conclusion, suggesting that such disproportionate attention is misplaced.
From 1997 to 2015, federal prosecutors had an average conviction rate of about 91% for all criminal cases. In federal white-collar cases, the conviction rate was more than 90%. But of the 39 trade secret and economic espionage cases involving China since 1997, federal prosecutors won convictions in only 66.7% of cases. In contrast, for cases involving other countries, prosecutors had a conviction rate much closer to its other cases — about 87%.

Under pressure to stop Chinese spying, prosecutors seem to file espionage-related charges without fully understanding the facts.
Last May, Xiaoxing Xi, former head of the physics department at Temple University, was arrested by FBI agents, who burst into his suburban Philadelphia home with guns drawn. Xi was handcuffed in front of his family and charged with sharing schematics for a piece of “secret” laboratory equipment, which it later turned out was not secret at all. Four months later, prosecutors dropped the case, saying “additional information came to the attention of the government.”
In the very first economic espionage case to go to trial, in San Jose in 2009, prosecutors accused two Chinese American engineers of seeking to “benefit” the Chinese government, simply because the engineers had applied for research funding from Chinese agencies to help their startup. The jury rejected the prosecutors' argument and concluded that this was just normal business activity. One recurring issue in Chinese trade secret cases is that local U.S. attorneys, many of whom know little about the major role that state institutions play in the Chinese economy, misinterpret normal contacts with government banks or research institutes as evidence of spying.
To many observers, the government's unjustified suspicion of Asian Americans became apparent in 1999, when Wen Ho Lee, a Taiwanese American nuclear physicist employed at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, was accused of sharing nuclear secrets with China.
Lee, who was included on a shortlist of suspects because of his frequent trips to Asia and his access to classified information — and, critics claim, his ethnicity — consistently denied he had given sensitive information to China. The case fell apart, and seven years later, Lee won a civil judgment against the prosecutors and media organizations that had tarnished his reputation.
In case after case, the government's allegations of improper motives — perhaps fed by suspicions of China — have failed to withstand scrutiny. In 2014, a jury found former Texas Instruments engineer Ellen Chen Yeh not guilty of all charges in a trade secret case. Yeh, who had left Texas Instruments to work at a company in China, was accused of wrongfully downloading computer chip designs and taking them to China with the intent to steal them. Yeh explained that she kept the designs — which she had developed herself — because she hoped to resume working with Texas Instruments someday. The jury believed her.

The way prosecutors bring China-related trade secret cases causes immense damage to those accused. By publicizing these cases before they can prove them, prosecutors destroy reputations. In October 2014, Sherry Chen, a 60-year-old Chinese American water scientist, was arrested by FBI agents at a National Weather Service office in Ohio. Chen, who had been a U.S. citizen for more than 15 years, was accused of downloading data on U.S. dams and passing it to a Chinese government official. The charges against her carried 25 years in prison and a $1-million fine. Prosecutors dropped the charges against Chen shortly before her trial was set to start because they realized they had misinterpreted the evidence, but that did not undo damage to her good name. Undeterred by the collapse of its case, the government says it still intends to bar Chen from her job, a decision she is fighting.
There is also growing evidence that prejudice may affect the sentencing process for those found guilty of trade secret theft. An analysis of cases over the last two decades shows that, for individuals convicted of trade secret theft, the average sentence for people with Chinese surnames is more than twice that for those with non-Chinese surnames. This translates to an average of an extra 17 months in prison for Chinese Americans.
The strength of the U.S. economy is based largely on innovation and competition. A more careful approach to these prosecutions can protect the rights of Asian Americans, minimize wrongful prosecutions and help ensure an economic environment that continues to foster innovation.
George Koo is a global business advisor. Daniel Olmos is a criminal defense attorney who has successfully defended several trade secret cases at trial.