Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Book Review on Chiang and Mao

This book review first appeared online in Asia Times.

Ruling a Quarter of Mankind is political science professor Paul Tai’s comparative analysis of the personalities of Chiang Kai-Shek and Mao Zedong — two most important figures in China’s modern history — based on meticulous research.
Tai drew not just from western sources, but from more than twice as many Chinese sources from both sides of the Taiwan straits. He also laboriously reviewed Chiang’s voluminous diaries covering nearly every day of his life for 55 years. The end result is a highly readable narrative.
The book is not just about comparing the leadership qualities of Chiang, who took overall control of a fragmented and virtually disintegrated China and united it to resist the invasion of Japan’s imperial troops, and Mao, who seized control of a consolidated China from Chiang after WWII.
Woven into Tai’s story are numerous facts and anecdotes involving other major figures, some from inside China and some from the global arena who played critical roles in the struggle between Chiang’s KMT and Mao’s CCP.
Written in elegant yet gentlemanly non polemic style, Tai’s book is one of those rare scholarly treatises that is easy to read and fascinating for anyone interested in understanding how today’s China came to be and the key roles played by Chiang and Mao. Because he drew heavily from Chinese sources, Tai’s book presents a more complete presentation of the birth of modern China than heretofore available from western sources.
Chiang, being five years older than Mao, began his rise to power earlier, first being appointed the head of the Whampoa Military Academy, China’s first West Point-like institution. Many of the Academy graduates trained by Chiang became the core team of officers under his command later.
From Guangzhou, Chiang proposed and led the Northern Expeditionary force with a modest sized force to unify a country riven with warlords. En route to Beijing, at the time the nominal capital of China, he defeated regional warlords having forces much larger than his and convinced others to join his command rather than to oppose him. His success amazed the nation and by late 1920s, Chiang secured his position as a national leader.
Chiang, the unifying force
His indispensable role as one capable of leading the nation against Japanese aggression was evident from the aftermath of the Xian Incident in 1936. He was held captive by the two generals under his command that rebelled against him. The two generals invited Mao’s CCP to the confab in order to jointly persuade Chiang to stop fighting each other and to unitedly fight the Japanese. Even Mao realized that Chiang was the only national leader capable of uniting all the Chinese factions against the invading Japanese.
Chiang’s strategy with Japan was to “trade space for time” with measured retreat and force the Japanese troops to expend blood and resources as they occupy increasing portion of China and as they move to the interior from northeast to southwest. After Pearl Harbor drew the US into the war, Chiang’s strategy was the obvious. American forces needed China to tie down the Japanese forces while the GI’s fought across the Pacific.
Chiang’s greatest contribution to modern China was to become Franklin Roosevelt’s trusted wartime ally. Roosevelt overcame Churchill’s disdain for Chiang and insisted on including Chiang at the Cairo conference and treating China as a great power thereby earning it a permanent seat at the UN Security Council after WWII. From the author’s point of view, China was a country in total disarray before the war, and it regained its sovereignty after the war because of Chiang’s leadership.
Chiang’s failings caused his “loss” of China. First, he valued loyalty over competence and ability. One victim of his bias was General Sun Li-jen, who was trained at VMI in the US and not at Whampoa. In Burma, Sun saved the fleeing British forces from the pursuing Japanese troops and became Stillwell’s favorite KMT general. Once he followed the KMT retreat to Taiwan, his payback was house arrest because Chiang feared Sun as America’s designated leader to replace him.
General Xue Yue was another case. He was known as the defender of Changsha and the only KMT general to consistently check and defeat Japanese advances. Claire Chennault was a sworn brother and called Xue the “Patton of Asia.” After following Chiang to Taiwan in 1949, he lived to a ripe old age of 101 in “leisure” and was only given honorific types of postings. He was Chiang’s student at Whampoa but fell out of the inner circle when he vocally supported national unity to fight the Japanese after the Xian Incident.
During the civil war that ensued after WWII, KMT generals trusted by Chiang got preferential treatment and the troops suffered from jealousy and poor coordination among their commanders. This was a critical flaw that led to their rapid disintegration on the battlefield.
Chiang’s second failing was his lack of comprehension and appreciation of the importance of financial discipline. He did not care about amassing money to his personal account but regarded the printing press of the central bank as his to use freely. He would send bundles of cash along with arms to sway warlords to his side. He also sent cash awards to his line officers to ensure their loyalty.
Tai observed, “He (Chiang) considered his under-the-table monetary operations entirely legitimate and necessarily secretive. Such perception of the fusion of power and money is perhaps one factor accountable for the widely known corruption in his regime.”
Post WWII, keeping Chiang’s government afloat depended on keeping the printing presses running leading to runaway inflation. Coupled with his inconsistency in dealing with corruption, the outcome was disastrous. Execution with a bullet in the head was levied on lower rank and file but he was more lenient with senior officials in his inner circle who committed more egregious offenses. The uneven treatment led to the widespread belief that corruption was acceptable. Rampant inflation mixed with endemic culture of corruption accelerated his loss of power and hastened his retreat to Taiwan.
The author pointed out that Chiang learned his bitter lesson and once he settled down in Taiwan, he entrusted the running of the economy to technocrats and experts and the result was a long booming economy that put Taiwan in the ranks of the four little tigers second only to Japan. Tai suggested that Beijing’s policy makers might have benefited by following Taiwan’s experience. I think that might be a bit of stretch. (When Beijing began its economic reform under Deng Xiaoping, its officials held many exchanges and survey visits with Japan and Singapore to learn from their practices. Official exchanges with Taiwan came much later.)
Portrait of Mao not so sympathetic
Arguably, Tai’s greater familiarity of Chiang’s life from his academic studies and his careful reading of Chiang’s diary enabled him to form a more sympathetic portrait of Chiang. Despite his intention to be impartial and objective, Tai was not as familiar with Mao’s life. He relied heavily on the words of Li Zhisui, Mao’s longtime personal physician, and on the biography by Chang and Halliday. Both sources were quite critical of Mao. Inevitably, I think, his portrait of Mao was not as sympathetic.
Nevertheless, the consequences of Mao’s mistakes were colossal. Like Chiang, Mao was also illiterate in science and economics, but his ignorance did not keep him from making policies with disastrous outcomes. His campaign of backyard furnaces that consumed pots and pans made no sense, put the economy on negative growth and led to a famine that killed tens of millions.
Mao’s Great Cultural Revolution was designed to keep him in power but denied an entire young generation of proper education, and disrupted the functioning of the government and the national economy. His lack of respect for learning was particularly ironic and appalling. He actually thought the uneducated ruling class of workers, peasants and soldiers can take over and run the country.
His biggest mistake in foreign policy was to not object to Stalin’s directive to support North Korea’s invasion of South Korea. Mao gave up on his own plan to invade Taiwan at a time when momentum was all on his side and the US had given up on Chiang and would not have interfered with the PLA assault on Taiwan. By sending Chinese volunteers across the border and fighting the American-led troops, Mao created the stalemate that still stands today, i.e., a divided Korean peninsula and a divided China.
Mao’s place in history can be attributed to his brilliance as a military strategist, in particular, the practice of guerrilla warfare. He effectively dodged the superior forces of the KMT until after the Xian Incident when the two parties agreed to unitedly fight the Japanese. After WWII, his PLA again overcame the numerically superior force and better weaponry with guerrilla-based tactics to systematically cut the KMT forces to pieces. (Tai had a fascinating section describing Mao’s success in embedding his secret agents in Chiang’s command structure. Mao knew about a particular plan of surprise attack on his home base three days before Chiang’s commanders of the forward elements were given the plan.)
After his PLA consolidated the takeover of the mainland, Mao declared on Oct. 1, 1949 that China had stood up. This was a major psychological milestone for the people of China after a hundred years of humiliation in the hands of the western power. For the next quarter of a century until his death, Mao worked on strengthening China and boosting the national pride of its people. In 1964 despite the turmoil of the Cultural Revolution underway, China became a nuclear power by detonating its own atomic bomb.
In 1972, at Mao’s invitation, Nixon went to China as the first step to normalizing relations between the two countries. Nixon saw that admitting the nation of a quarter of mankind to the community of nations was necessary and inevitable. Mao too saw that Nixon needed help to extricate the Americans from the Vietnam quagmire and he represented an opportunity to strike a bargain. Out of the visit came the Shanghai Communiqué that must be considered an extraordinary document in the chronicles of world diplomacy. Indeed to this day, every US president refers to the Shanghai Communiqué as the tie that binds the two nations.
The author concluded that the two leaders were more similar than different. Mao was a visionary who saw China’s eventual place on the world stage. Chiang did not, perhaps because he had to focus on fighting for his country’s survival against Japan. At the end of WWII, Chiang strived hard on regaining China’s sovereignty. Mao completed the tasks that Chiang had left incomplete. Both were ruthless in seizing and keeping control. Both wanted a strong, unified China.
Professor Tai’s study on Chiang and Mao, the subtitle of his book, is an excellent starting point for anyone wanting to understand today’s China. His treasure trove of bibliographic references will enable anyone to explore further any aspect of the early days of China as a republic.

Saturday, June 11, 2016

Trump University will cost the Republican Party plenty

This piece first appeared in Asia Times.

Donald Trump’s presidential campaign has relied on a string of controversial declarations designed to insult certain segments of the American society and reap the free publicity resulting from the media coverage. When the offended party responds with a vigorous protest, Trump then backs down and modifies his positions to mollify the outrage.

His latest stunt is so over the top that this time he may not have a way to back down. He declared that the judge, Gonzalo Curiel, presiding over litigations over the Trump University could not be impartial because his parents are originally from Mexico, even though Judge Curiel was born in Indiana and is obviously an American in order to serve on the federal district court.

Leading Republican figures, many of whom have only recently and grudgingly rallied around Trump as the presumptive GOP candidate for president, are aghast and scrambling to find ways of disassociating from Trump’s racism and keeping from being splattered by the mud.

Apparently, Trump expects Judge Curiel to accede to his request to dismiss lawsuits against him and the Trump University on summary judgment. A summary judgment is rendered when it’s obvious to the presiding judge that the plaintiff has no case. Since Judge Curiel does not agree with Trump’s point of view, he is therefore biased. As Trump has publicly asserted, the judge is biased because he is Hispanic.

Of the total federal cases, less than 15% were thrown out on summary judgment arising from the flimsiness of the cases. The lawsuits filed against Trump and Trump University were on behalf of former students accusing the operation of fraud, false advertising and unfair business practices. There is no prima facie indication that the suits are frivolous.

So why is Trump accusing the presiding federal district judge that he is biased? A connoisseur of litigation, Trump has personally been involved in thousands of lawsuits, both as plaintiff and as defendant. He wallows in legal disputes.

A well-known practice, when you are a billionaire and the legal case is going against you, is to get the judge to recuse him or herself on the grounds of potential conflict.

What if there are no grounds for claiming conflict of interest? You create some. Through circular reasoning, you first accuse the judge of not being fair, and then you appear in court to ask the judge to vacate his/her seat because the judge has been accused of not being fair.

If you are rich, you can afford to keep finding excuses and reasons to keep the court from hearing the case. Trump claims to be rich but he can’t afford to lose the suits involving the now defunct Trump University. The potential damage to his pocket book and to his reputation would be enormous.

Trump likes to declare that he is running for president on “America First.” Actually he is running on Donald Trump first. Donald Trump is all about Donald Trump.

He puts his personal interest, which is trying to get the suits against him dismissed, ahead of what’s good for the Republican Party and for the country.

Some pundits say Trump’s run for the presidency will be a disaster to befall the Republican Party; the setback could be worse than even when Barry Goldwater ran against Lyndon Johnson in 1964.

It’s too early to make a prognosis on exactly how badly the 2016 election will turn out, but we do know one important distinction between Trump and Goldwater.

Goldwater enunciated his ideas of conservatism and ran on his principles. Unlike Trump, he was gentlemanly and did not indulge in hate mongering.

Goldwater’s political messages did persuade the African American community that there was no room in the GOP tent for them. Ever since then, the black vote has been lopsidedly cast in favor of Democratic political candidates.

On the other hand, Trump’s equal opportunity slamming of ethnic, religious and sexual orientation groups has offended nearly everyone except for perhaps a small cohort of white male voters.

The consequences of Trump’s run for president could become a fearful burden that the Republican Party will have to bear for generations to come.

Monday, June 6, 2016

Review: ‘Nirvana in Fire,’ a historical drama from China

This item first appeared in Asia Times.

In my college days, one of the activities that bound the community of Chinese students whether from Hong Kong, Taiwan or the US was the circulation of wuxia novels to be enjoyed by those able to read Chinese. Mostly published from Hong Kong and Taiwan, this genre of stories portrayed heroes and heroines with mastery of martial arts and a peerless sense of chivalry. They would go around the country, which they called jianghu, righting wrongs and injustices, defending the weak, fighting corrupt officials and battling all kinds of evildoers. In stories with historical settings, the kung fu masters were volunteer defenders of their kings against usurpers and barbarians.
Many of the popular stories were serialized and published in daily installments by the newspaper or in weekly wuxia magazines. The story lines were always intricate, complex and non-linear. When the story was gripping, the reader would be hooked and held fanatical vigils at the newsstand to snatch each installment as it appeared in the newsstand. The length of some novels was of biblical proportions. Popular authors, such as Harvard grad Jin Yong, became multi-millionaires.
On YouTube
Nirvana in Fire official poster
Nirvana in Fire official poster
I was recently doused with nostalgia as I watched the 54 episodes of Nirvana in Fire on YouTube. I don’t know how Lang Ya Bang in Putonghua became Nirvana in Fire in English. But I found the Mandarin version gripping and entertaining and reminded me of my youth when I was an avid reader of wuxia anthologies.
The story supposedly took place in the 6th century Liang dynasty, one of the short-lived regimes in China’s history that coexisted with many other contending kingdoms in an era known as Northern and Southern dynasties—with the Yangtze River as demarcation, it was itself an indicator of a divided China. It was one of the chaotic periods in China’s history, and thus a convenient setting to take liberties with history.
Nirvana told a story of massive betrayal that ambushed a loyal army of 70,000 and how one lone survivor returned to painstakingly plot the step-by-step liquidation of the traitors and complicit court officials, and to eventually achieve ultimate redemption more than 13 years after the massacre.
The story opened with an ancient take of a thoroughly modern idea that information can be monetized and distilled from big data. It seemed a mysterious organization collected information sent from the four corners of China via messenger pigeons and employed a room full of clerks to compile and organize the amassed data. It was known as the place to inquire for answers to any question, rendered to those willing to pay the fee.
Two contending princes of the Liang court sent emissaries to Lang Ya Shan wishing to know the best master strategist available to help each overcome the other and ascend the throne. The answer to both princes was the same: Namely, find someone by the name of Mei Chang Su. And the tale unfolded from there.
Unlike Hollywood portrayals of super heroes from comic books, none of the characters were two-dimensional cutouts. Just the opposite, each character was attributed with a certain psychological profile and personality that gradually became clear with succeeding episodes. The Chinese subtitles made it easy to follow the dialogue and thus the plot development as exhibited by the thoughts and schemes of various protagonists.
Dazzling sword fights
With impressive cinematography of the imperial court and countryside, beautiful costumes, dazzling sword fights and superb acting from a large cast, the story unfold bit by delicious bit, meticulously paced but never dragged. Going from one episode to the next was just like scarfing down one installment of a wuxia story and then on to the next.
Actress Liu Tao plays Mu Nihuang
Actress Liu Tao plays Mu Nihuang
The script paid careful attention to details. Over the 54 episodes, inconsistencies were rare. Each character had logical reasons and motivation for his/her actions. The dialogue was subtle and nuanced abetted by sophisticated acting. It was a terrific TV serial that put Chinese culture on display.
Two examples came to mind. Early in the story, the survivor, Su Zhe, who lost his martial prowess on the battlefield, came back 12 years later as a physically frail, scholarly counselor. He amazed everyone in the court when he boasted that he could train three 12 year-old boys with no prior exposure to martial arts for five days to array in powerful proprietary formations that could defeat the reigning kung fu master. Later in the story, while Su and the crown prince were waiting for reports of the outcome of various skullduggeries orchestrated by them, Su lit and used the burning of a single joss stick as the ancient form of a Chinese hourglass. Those touches were drawn from classic stories of martial arts.
The episodes contained elements of greed, betrayal, loyalty, suspicion, love, revenge, lust for power, implications of genocide, jealousy, honor, integrity, murder, cruelty, kindness, generosity and mixtures of these qualities in conflict and contradiction. The closest hint of sex was when the star-crossed couple held hands and on rare occasions tearfully embraced. The underlying theme in Nirvana was the Chinese tradition that one’s most sacred duty was to honor one’s ancestor and protect the reputation of the family name.
Battle scene from Nirvana in Fire
Battle scene from Nirvana in Fire
Korean version
The twists and turns of the story enthralled not just the audience in China but also captured a global following. The Korean version of the serial has captured prime time viewing in South Korea, reversing the usual export of TV drama from Korea to China. The YouTube and other video versions are being viewed around the world.
China has rapidly evolved to become the most important market for movies and television programs second only to the US. Indeed, to capture major market share in both countries, a conglomerate like Wanda has been making major investments in America such as buying AMC, one of the major chains of cinema theaters in the US as well as taking major stakes in Hollywood studios to help them produce movies that will appeal to the Chinese audience.
Certainly with Wanda’s knowledge of the Chinese consumer taste, their investment can steer its Hollywood partners away from the vapid series of Kung Fu Panda 1, 2 ad nauseam into producing movies of substance that would appeal to the more sophisticated Chinese palate.
Nirvana for US audiences?
Similarly, by owning the largest or nearly largest chain of movie theaters in America, Wanda is in the perfect position to introduce quality productions such as of the Nirvana genre to the American audience. I am guessing that the American audience would welcome a change from the super heroes that require huge leaps of faith and drastic suspension of reality and from the stomach churning gore of fantasy monsters and walking dead.
In a recent debate on whether China or India has more effective tools to wield soft power around the world, the pundit arguing on behalf of India asserted that Bollywood movies from India emanate soft power to a greater degree than anything in China’s toolkit. I believe the powerful stories of the Nirvana genre would capture audiences around the world far more effectively than movies from India that entertain the audience with sudden bursts of song and dance.
For readers interested in a sample of Nirvana in Fire, the first episode with Chinese subtitles can be found on YouTube,  https://youtu.be/VHXIfAmHOC4
or with English subtitles below*:
*Sine my original post, I've been told that the English subtitle version has been removed.
As indication of the worldwide popularity, there is yet another site that offers the serial in eighteen different languages including English,