Monday, December 23, 2013

Does China's Moon Landing Matter?

“Does China’s Moon Landing Matter?” was the title of a clip on Fox News as a panel of faux space experts bandied about the rhetorical question for around three minutes before coming up with a totally inane conclusion, obvious and not worth repeating here.

Vacuous drivel was not the way others regarded this event. “This is a very big deal indeed,” says lunar scientist Paul Spudis of the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston. “Landing on the moon is not something easily attained—it requires precision maneuvering, tracking, computation and engineering. It is a delicate task and the Chinese success reflects a mature, evolving and capable program.”

After two fly-by missions to the moon, China was successful on its first attempt for a soft landing on the moon surface. They then launched the rover from the lander to roam and explore a part of moon that had not been visited by the Russians or Americans, predecessors who have also landed on the moon., the website that focuses on all matters relating to space exploration, listed China’s Chang’e-3 mission as the latest on the list of most marvelous moon missions from human kind.

"This is a great day for lunar science and exploration, with the first successful soft landing on the surface of the Moon since the Soviet Union did it in 1976," said Clive Neal, a leading lunar scientist from University of Notre Dame.

Not everyone was as effusive. The New Zealand’s Conservative Party leader, Colin Craig, joined the inevitable chorus of conspiracy doubters and publicly questioned whether the moon landing really took place.

While most of world sent their congratulatory messages to Beijing, NASA was conspicuously quiet. "What we have here is a situation where politics is certainly inhibiting good scientific cooperation and discovery because the NASA mission people are not allowed to communicate bilaterally with their Chinese counterparts," Neal said.

Congressman Frank Wolf has been the direct cause for NASA’s silence. Wolf is well known for his rabid anti China posture and because he chairs the House committee with funding authority over NASA, he runs NASA as if the agency is his personal fiefdom. (He also practiced vicious racial profiling against ethnic Chinese that worked as NASA contractors.) He enacted into law in 2011 that specifically forbad NASA from any contact with China’s counterparts, much less any semblance of joint cooperation.

Wolf’s “activism” has turned what should have been a platform for international scientific cooperation into another petty issue of politics. Even Russia and the U.S., heretofore rivals in the space race, have been able to conduct joint space research in the International Space Station, but China was specifically not invited to be among the 14 member nations.

However, instead of China on the outside looking in, soon it will be other nations looking to be invited by China to participate in their explorations. Both the US and Russia are cutting back their financial commitment for space research just when China has plans firmly in place to move forward.

Already, the European Space Agency has become a partner of China’s space agency by providing their deep space tracking stations to track and help monitor Chang'e 3’s lunar descent.  When Chang’e landing succeeded, the crew at Darmstadt Germany broke out in celebration along with their colleagues in Beijing.

Just about the only other nation contemplating an on-going space exploration program is India. On paper, India will put a man on the moon by 2020, about 4 years ahead of China. But that’s on paper, China has already accomplished landing an unmanned spacecraft and dispatching a rover while nada for India. 

After Beijing successfully staged the 2008 Olympics, India aspired to do the same kind of hosting with the 2010 Commonwealth Games, except the outcome became a scandal ridden embarrassment. Some of the vendors even had trouble getting their equipment out of India as the organizers wanted to hold on to scoreboards and other appliances of value for ransom.

Going forward, whether India will deliver remains to be seen but certainly China will continue to ignite the earthling’s imagination as they continue their program for space exploration. What we won’t remember will be the buffoons on Fox, or alleged national leader like Colin Craig of New Zealand and the obstructionist like Frank Wolf.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

The Case of Su Haiping vs. The United States

I have frequently written about Chinese Americans victimized due to racial profiling by American law enforcement agencies. Dr. Su Haiping was one such victim. As reported by the San Jose Mercury News, his case has finally come to trial after nearly 6 years. Some of the proceedings in court has been reported by the World Journal, the national daily in Chinese, and I have provided a translation below.

Court Case on (violation of) Privacy Rights Opens, Su Haiping Asking $5.2 Million Compensation.

Lawyers for UCSC agriculture scientist Su Haiping on December 6 accuse US government of invasion of his rights to privacy, pointing out that after FBI concluded that Su represent security risk, the management of NASA Ames reveal the findings to Su’s co-workers and at the same time took away Su’s access to Ames Research Center. (Thus) causing heavy damage to Su’s professional reputation and his psychological wellbeing. Representative for the plaintiff is asking compensation of $5.2 miillion from the federal government.

Su’s invasion of privacy case occurred in 2008, at the time when he was working as one of expert analysts for UCSC’s University Affiliated Research Center. The principal source of funding was from NASA. At the time, Su had already been working at the Ames Research Center for nearly 3 years.

Government attorney countered that the difficulty of determining the invasion of a person’s privacy is very high, because such cases involves under what circumstances, to whom and what was said. According to court documents, defendant denied invasion of Su’s rights to privacy. Furthermore, the government attorney believes that disclosures by FBI and NASA were not very harmful to Su, because even though he can no longer go to Ames to work, he remained employed by UCSC.

Su’s case began in July of 2007 when he filled personal information on e-QIP for the purpose of getting NASA approval for facility entry in 2008. After submitting to NSA, he received the entry pass in January 2008 uneventfully. According to Su’s attorney, e-QIP was a new tool used by the government to check on staff after 9-11.

Michael Reedy, Su’s attorney, pointed out that NASA never obtained Su’s permission before turning over the completed e-QIP form to FBI. Defense objected and Davila, the presiding judge, ruled that the hearing does not include the e-QIP matter.

Beginning February 2008, FBI agent Sherman Kwok along with NASA personnel interviewed Su twice, both times in a windowless room at the (Ames) research center.

On March 21, 2008, Su went to Oakland to undertake a FBI administered lie detector test. Su was distraught after the test. According to court documents, FBI agent Kwok told Su that the lie detector results were not good, but there were no means to do a retest. The results were sent on to NASA.

According to Su’s testimony on December 5, June 24 2008 was a unforgettable day in his memory. On that day, Robert Dolci, head of NASA Ames security gave Su a letter signed by Dolci. The letter stated that according to results of investigations, the center considers Su a security risk to NASA’s intellectual property and thus is revoking his access to Ames research center (and the right to work there).

Monday, November 25, 2013

Pleasures of touring Guizhou

I just came back after leading a group of 20 through the southern and southeastern regions of Guizhou. This is the part of Guizhou that is full of ethnic minority villages and enclaves. In addition to the great diversity of people in colorful native apparel, the rugged terrain of Guizhou offered spectacular scenery. It was the most fun and fascinating trip ever for my fellow travelers and me.

Lots of people do not know where Guizhou is. Even many Chinese don't. It is a landlocked province in southern part of China, one of the least economically developed regions of China.

With the tourism boom going on in China, Guizhou will become a future hot destination, first for domestic citizens within China and then later for western tourists that have already been to the popular Beijing/Shanghai/Xian/Guilin circuit.

China is a land of beautiful scenery and Guizhou has its share. We visited Huangguoshu (yellow fruit tree meaning tangerines) Falls 

Huangguoshu Falls at top right

and Xiaoqikong (seven small arches) Scenic Area in Guizhou. Both are world-class attractions and the good news is that these areas are being managed in a way consistent with their world-class status.
students at the Xiaoqikong
In other words, only park service vehicles inside the park, designated walkways for visitors, conveniently located trash and recycle bins, and relatively odor free restrooms.

We walked through villages belonging to Miao, Dong, Buyi, Shui and Yao people. We even stayed in Zhaoxing, a town with five clans of Dong people. We learned to tell the difference between the long skirt, short skirt and mushroom Miao people by their costumes. We even went to a Gejia village where the people are striving to be recognized by the central government as a distinct ethnic group and not as a branch of the Miaos.

Short skirt Miao
Long skirt Miao
Mushroom Miao

The displays in the Gejia museum claim that they are descended from northeast corner of China and Hou Yi, the legendary hero who shot down extra suns in the sky and saved earth from a scorching demise, as their ancestor. Hou Yi is a legendary figure that also has a place in the Han Chinese folklore.
Gejia people

By oral tradition, the Miaos believe that they migrated southward from the Yellow River basin before recorded history when their forefathers lost the battle to Huangdi and his coalition of warriors and were forced to vacate their farmlands. Since Huangdi is the legendary founder of the Hans, this is a case where the two sets of people are looking at opposing sides of the same legend.

In Zhenyuan we found a more recent example of seeing two interpretations of the same set of facts. Rated as one of China’s most beautiful ancient towns, Zhenyuan has the beginning of the southern Great Wall that runs eastward to Fenghuang in neighboring Hunan province. In Zhenyuan, we were told that the wall was built by the Miaos to keep the Hans out. A few years earlier, we went to see the southern wall in Fenghuang and we were told that the wall was to keep the Miaos out--one wall, two interpretations.
Ancient town of Zhenyuan
There are many signs and indications that Guizhou is getting ready for big time development in tourism. The roads are paved, in many cases double lanes in each direction. Some relied on switchbacks to climb and go around the many mountains but we did get on the Xiarong superhighway that was breathtakingly amazing. In a total stretch of around 400 kms, there were 163 tunnels, many over 5 km long, and most likely as many elevated flyovers, some hundreds of feet above the valley floor. This superhighway did not bend or switchback but simply went straight through mountains and soared over rivers and valleys. We were told that the construction company that built the superhighway is now working in Africa.

Even in the most remote village on the mountainside, we saw satellite TV dishes and solar panels deployed for street lighting in public areas. These modern conveniences along with the superhighways will inevitably change the life style of the people in these villages.
Working lunch for Dong men
Note satellite dishes in rear

Tourism itself will affect and possibly alter the native culture of these ethnic minorities. The Ping’an village in the Longji Scenic District located in neighboring Guangxi is representative of the contradiction in tourism. Unlike the villages in Guizhou, Ping’an sitting above the mountain ridge has been long known as the place to go to see spectacular arrays of terrace rice paddies. One measure of its readiness for tourism is the fast and free wifi at the hotel and numerous coffee shops that serve real expresso rather than instant coffee.

To help the tourists make the steep climb to the hotel from the mid-level where the park operated bus stops, there are middle age women ready to carry our backpacks and carry-ons up to our hotel. They can earn $5-7 for each trip up or down and on a good week, they can earn a lot more money than they can farm on the rice paddies for the year. On the other hand, if they let the paddies go uncultivated, the reason for the tourists to visit would go away. Thus it’s been necessary for the government to subsidize the farmers so that they would have the incentive to keep on farming. 
Yao women porters

This is the kind of classic dilemma and trade-off between keeping a native culture pristine and buffing it for the tourist. In front of the village entrance, Zhaoxing builds a new complex consisting of a shiny flower bridge, towers and water wheels. It’s jarringly fresh looking especially compared to the old weather beaten bridges and towers inside the village.
Zhaoxing, a Dong village

Walking through various villages, our guide repeatedly reminded us not to offer money in exchange for taking the photos of local residents. We don’t want to develop such an expectation, he said. It was a positive sign that he still had to give us the warning, which means the bad habit has not set in, but then inevitably it will.

The government is trying to perpetuate the various native cultures by providing facilities for special education. We drove past a new high school campus, not quite finished that will allow Miao students to live in and focus on the studies of Miao culture, one of the major ethnic groups in this part of China. Will it be enough to preserve Miao’s ethnic identity in face of urbanization, television and lure of modernization? Ironically, the Miao culture does not believe in education, which may do more to slow the dissipation of their culture.

Far from cultural genocide that China’s critics often like to accuse China of doing, the government policies are designed to encourage maintaining the native customs and practices. Will it be enough to keep the Miaos from going the way of American Indians, donning war paints and performing the rain dance only for fee paying tourist cameras? It’s hard to know at this point but my guess is that the Miao people won’t become so banal so quickly.

*                                   *                                   * 
Our itinerary was created by Dragon Delight, our tour operator. They were prompt and responsive to our queries and delivered everything they promised. The English speaking guide was excellent and exceeded our expectation. The driver was steady and conservative, important attributes for driving around the mountainous roads. Dragon Delight also offers group rate discount starting from a group as small as six, increasing the discount with increasing size. With a group of 20, the per person rate was a real bargain. For anyone considering going based on our itinerary and has more than two weeks to spare, I would recommend extending an extra day stay at Guiyang, Zhenyuan, Libo and Zhaoxing. There are plenty to see and do in Guizhou and extra days in one place would make the tour more leisurely and enjoyable.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Fading American Expectation and Exceptionalism

Since the financial tsunami of 2008, I have been monitoring the bilateral currency swap agreements that China has entered into. According to the most recent report, China has 24 such agreements in place, the recent agreements with EU and UK are probably the most significant.

Most significant because EU represents a major portion of global economic activity, second only to the US and because UK is unabashedly and proactively going after opportunities associated with becoming a swap center for Renminbi (along with Hong Kong and Singapore) and bending over backwards to entice Chinese investments into UK.

There was a time when UK was the leading economic power of the world--you know, when the sun never set on the British empire. The pound sterling was at the time the world's reserve currency of choice. That was then.

Since then America has overtaken UK and became a superpower and after the collapse of USSR, the world's only superpower. The dollar has replaced the pound as the reserve currency.

Despite the fact that the financial collapse of 2008 was caused by American greed on Wall Street, the dollar was still considered the safest currency to have and hold. Foreign money piling into the US did its part in keeping the interest rate of US Treasury bills low.

Since that time, however, the US Congress has twice threatened to renege on the national debt which would in effect render the foreign holdings of US Treasury bills worthless. Each time, Congress kept the world watching with abated breath and backed off as the clock was about to strike midnight.

Congress has not offered a permanent fix to the circus revolving around the fiscal budget and debt ceiling but merely kicked the can down the street with yet another deadline looming on December 13. Some wags have suggested that Congress lacked sense of humor and did not select February 2, Ground Hog's Day, for the deadline.

Watching the US fiddle with the prospect of default is no joking matter but the world clearly appreciated that Washington has become one big joke.

As Wall Street Journal, among others, have pointed out, Asian countries in particular are now busy doing their own side deals in bilateral currency swaps to avoid additional dollar exposure. The most prominent next to China has been South Korea. They have been cutting one deal after another with their major trading partners. Their central banker said Korea is following China's lead.

The worldwide trend is obvious to anyone except members of Congress. American exceptionalism is fraying along with the declining desirability of the dollar. When enough countries decide holding on to the dollar is too risky, the American dollar will cease to be the reserve currency of choice.

When China is courageous enough to make the Renminbi freely convertible, the appeal of the dollar could take a quantum dump. When the world ceases to want dollars for their rainy days, the value of the dollar will go kaput. The American taxpayers will rue that day but it will be too late to throw the rascals out of Washington. The damage would be beyond repair.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Does Shutdown Presage Global Meltdown?

An edited version appeared in New America Media.

The mightiest democracy in the world has grounded to a screeching halt by the tyranny of few.

Somehow the Tea Party members, roughly 10% of the House, were able to hold the Speaker of the House of Representative hostage and force him into an impasse with the White House.

The US Federal government can no longer operate because the political leaders of the two political parties cannot find common ground and agree.

Instead the parties are now feverishly engaged in explaining to the public why the other side is to blame. Nobody has a solution.

Befuddled observers around the world watch in morbid fascination even though they are hard put to explain how or why this can happen to the only superpower still standing.

The US is worse off than Italy: not even a person of Silvio Berlusconi’s ilk is around to bail out the American impasse and avert a government shutdown. (Berlusconi “saved” Italy by not bolting from the ruling coalition.)

The people of Lebanon are saying, “Hey, you Americans come and learn from us, we have gotten along without a functioning government for decades.”

To the Egyptians, this was an aha moment, namely how to get rid of a government without bloodshed.

Other western democracies such as France, Germany and U.K. are congratulating themselves for having the parliamentary form of democracy where the prime minister stays in power so long as a majority of the parliament supports him or her.

When the prime minister no longer has majority support and loses the confidence vote, the government falls. But, unlike the U.S. a minority cannot violate the basic tenet of democracy and shut the government down.

The bloggers in China seem to be having the most fun seizing the shutdown as an opportunity for a twofer.

On the one hand, the bloggers are praising the American civil society to the sky for its ability to go about business as usual, in contrast to China where a shutdown would assuredly lead to chaos and disorder.

On the other, some slyly suggested that a shutdown of the Chinese government wouldn’t be such a bad thing.

Tourists visiting the U.S. do not find the shutdown amusing. Many from China left for the US around October 1, China’s national holiday and the beginning of China’s Golden Week.

For many that scrimped for the trip of their lifetime, they will be going home without the customary photos of Yosemite and Statue of Liberty and other popular icons from the land of the free.

The bad taste of disappointed tourists is hardly the only damage to international relations for the U.S.

Because of the shutdown, Obama had to cancel his visit to Malaysia and Philippines and possibly the entire trip to Southeast Asia just to pivot back to Washington—further shaking the confidence of the region in the leadership of the U.S.

In contrast, China’s President Xi Jinping went to Indonesia and became the first foreign leader to address Indonesia’s parliament where he spoke for nearly an hour (and then he went on to Malaysia).  

The Taiwan based Apple Daily made a fuss over one of the phrases Xi used in his speech. He said jilidangjitianxiali, which the English China Daily has translated as, “The interests to be considered should be the interests of all.”

The cause of the excitement is because the same exact phrase used to be one half of the operating motto belonging to Chiang Ch’ing Guo when he succeeded his father, Chiang Kai Shek, and became the second president of Republic of China in Taiwan.

Indonesia would seem to be an unlikely venue to send a coded message to Taiwan. More likely Xi was using a phrase in common usage to emphasize the principle that one should consider the greater good over the narrow interest of a select few.

This, of course, is the very message that the political leaders of the U.S. are ignoring, namely, total focus on their individual agenda and not at all on national interest.

The gridlock continues and the U.S. is expected to hurtle over the fiscal cliff around October 17.  Without a Congress to work with the White House and raise the debt ceiling, the U.S. will have to default.

When the world sees the full faith of the U.S. Federal Government as worthless, there will be a worldwide financial Armageddon. Perhaps the crazies in Congress relish the idea of an Armageddon, but no one else will.

The self-inflicted wounds to American prestige will take time to recover. But if the United States actually defaults, the damage will be fatal and the world will never trust the U.S. ever again.