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.