Kevin Rudd: Pro and Anti-China?

Matt Schiavenza blogs about the Aussie expat reaction to John Howard’s election defeat, as well as the incoming prime minister’s Sino-centric language skills:

At The Box, one of Kunming’s popular watering holes, the mood last night was jovial. The Australian general election results came in and Labor scored a decisive victory, booting long-tenured Prime Minister John Howard and his Liberal Party from office. Aussie expats, like their American counterparts, tend to be decidedly left-wing. As a result, many high-fives and celebratory cheers were exchanged. The Americans in attendance wistfully called for a similar result in our own election next year.

Like most people outside of Australasia, I have never paid much attention to Australian politics. Yet John Howard was a distinctly loathsome figure, perhaps the only leader outside of the United States to match President Bush’s belligerent, hawkish rhetoric. Howard was no Tony Blair- a brilliant politician felled by a monumental error in supporting Iraq. Howard was a neocon’s neocon. He marched lockstep with Bush and never questioned the White House’s prosecution of the war. For that, he paid the ultimate political price.

[...]

So who becomes the new Australian premier? Kevin Rudd. The Labour Party head campaigned on two central issues: reversing Howard’s opposition to the Kyoto Protocol on climate change and removing Australian troops from Iraq. What interests me about Rudd, though, is his background. In the 1980s, he served in the Australian diplomatic corps in Beijing, acquiring fluent Mandarin in the process. Earlier in the year, Rudd made quite a splash in China by delivering a speech in Mandarin in front of the suitably impressed President Hu Jintao.

A “neocon’s neocon” is a silly pejorative,* but one point is clear: Howard, like Spain’s Jose Aznar, like the Congressional Republicans, and to a lesser extent, Tony Blair, is out of the picture because of the war in Iraq. Most right-wing Australians I know (I suppose Tianjin has more than Kunming) were cool to the Liberal Party — or even opposed to Howard — because of the war and the perceived marriage of interests between Washington and Canberra.

There’s also a systemic factor at work in Howard’s defeat: Australia has mandatory voting laws, so if you moderately disliked (or were just tired of) Howard and you were forced to vote, you might have voted against his party, whereas in America, if you moderately disliked Bush in 2004, you might have sat on your hands instead of voted. In an American-style system Howard might still be in office.

In retrospect, Howard was a successful pol for the most part — nearly 12 years in office hardly constitutes failure. It might also, unlike Matt’s characterization, suggest some degree of political brilliance, especially given the high rate of Australian political participation. But Bush has this magic power to drag down everyone he calls a friend, and John Howard couldn’t escape that curse.

The above having been said, it’ll be interesting to see what Rudd does vis-a-vis China, and it’s always admirable to have a Mandarin-speaking executive. However, there are two points to dampen anyone’s hopes of Sino-Oz unity.

First, save for continuing the longstanding US-Australian-Japan security arrangements, Howard’s relationship with China wasn’t exactly “hostile,” so most friendly shifts towards China by Rudd would be almost imperceptible to most observers.

Second, friendly relations with China may have actually contributed to Howard’s defeat. As the IHT observes,

Much of Australia’s economic boom has been fueled by the windfall profits from China’s rise. Australia supplies much of the coal and iron ore that make China’s explosive growth possible. But the benefits have not been evenly distributed across Australia, accruing mainly to the mining states of Western Australia and Queensland and leaving pockets of deep hardship in the country’s most populous states, New South Wales and Victoria.

So when Howard said this year that “working families have never had it so good,” he alienated many of his supporters and gave Labor a tag line that became a refrain of their successful campaign.

Any policy shifts by incoming Prime Minister Rudd to balance this economic growth — possibly by masking it under the aegis of Midnight Oil-powered environmental protection — would likely be seen as negative in the PRC.

We should remember that when dealing with Beijing, it’s not just military policy but also economic and environmental policy that is interpreted as “anti-China.” In the eyes of many Chinese officials and academics, Bush’s strongest “anti-China” moves, aside from the Hainan spy plane incident, were his use of anti-China trade barriers and pressure to revalue the RMB — moves called for and supported by Democrats more than Republicans. Add to this their natural “ownership” of the human rights issue and the Bush administration’s opponents on the left can be seen as more “anti-China” than the supposed “emperor” himself.

If 2007 and 2008 prove to be good years for the new left in Australia and America, they may also, in the end, signal the worsening of Sino-Western relations — at least so long as the left’s policies match their campaign rhetoric.

* I won’t engage in a tired debate about the meaning of neocon, but, like fascist, it’s one of those terms ridiculously overused as an epithet.

China Thumbs Its Nose for Free?

In a game of diplomatic tit-for-tat, the Chinese government disinvited and reinvited the USS Kitty Hawk’s CBG from its Hong Kong port of call for Thanksgiving.

Reports Reuters
,

The USS Kitty Hawk group and its 8,000 airmen and sailors were expected in Hong Kong on Wednesday, but the U.S. State Department said the visit had been refused by China.

Hundreds of relatives of U.S. crew members had flown to Hong Kong to celebrate Thanksgiving on Thursday. Later in the day, China appeared to have relented, announcing the carrier would be allowed to stop by the former British colony after all.

“We have decided to allow the Kitty Hawk to stay in Hong Kong during Thanksgiving,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao told a news conference. “It is a decision based on humanitarian considerations only.”

But a spokesman for the U.S. Pacific Fleet in Hawaii told Reuters the ships were not heading back to Hong Kong and were on course towards the Kitty Hawk’s base in Japan.

While I suppose China thinks it’s making a point by snubbing the US after President Bush met with the Dalai Lama, the benefits of such a move in international diplomacy may be outweighed by the end effect on the US domestic audience.

I’ve no doubt that stories like this — which will be interpreted by Americans simply as China being petty — will add to fuel to the anti-China fire back in the US. And whereas it simply used to be politicians on the right who about the threats we faced from “Communist China,” 2008, thanks to economic tensions, tainted goods, and environmental issues, looks to be a broad, bipartisan, anti-China election. Add to this the fact that US consumers, during the next four weeks, will be choosing whether or not to buy “Made in China” goods, and one cannot but feel that China picked a bad time to thumb its nose.

The Pit

Since early this year, Tianjin’s main station has been closed for a massive reconstruction project that will increase station capacity as well as add light rail and subway lines. When finished, Tianjin will arguably have a better metro rail system than Beijing, though the capital will still surpass Tianjin in bus and taxi service, not to mention the number of rail connections going out of the city.

DSC00934However, construction on the new station has been slow. Word in the rumor mill was that the station would be open, at least partially, in time for the Olympics, but I can’t see that happening, despite the fact that the aboveground sections will be built while the underground sections are finished, a costly but time-saving method of construction. (An aside: one of my students gave a presentation on how computer modeling has helped to earthquake-proof the station while building above and below ground, which is an absolute must considering that Tianjin is near a major fault line in north China.)

For now, the once and future Tianjin Station is encircled by a giant, rebar-filled pit. The old station, which has yet to be torn down, sits in the center like a medieval castle protected by a moat. The sheer size of the pit — roughly fifty feet deep, more than a hundred feet wide, and almost a kilometer long — made me recall Manufactured Landscapes, a documentary that showcased photographer Edward Burtynsky as he chronicled massive man-made environmental changes throughout China.

This Saturday I snapped a couple shots of the construction work at the station while picking up tailored shirts at the Longmen textile market next to the old station, which is still open for business despite resting on the edge of the proverbial abyss. Without climbing to an elevated position to shoot, I can’t quite capture the size of the construction, though these photos give some idea of the scale and look of the place.

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Carl Sagan, Reasonable Atheist

During my crosstown commute this evening I watched a recording of a late-1980s television broadcast, “God, the Universe, and Everything,” featuring Carl Sagan, Stephen Hawking, and Arthur C. Clarke. The trio and their host discussed the nature of the cosmos and of God, with a brief detour into Clarke’s fractal fetish. I’m struck that in contrast to fellow avowed atheist Richard Dawkins, Carl Sagan addressed questions of God and faith during the program without resorting to philosophical mouth farts. And so it was with his appearances on “Cosmos” and other programs. Even Sagan’s final work, 1996’s The Demon-Haunted World sets forth its arguments against religion in a reasonable way, and chooses to devote most of its energy to fighting pseudoscience.

It could be that Dawkins is more confrontational (I would in fact call it nasty) because times are different and the religious are now perceived as more of a “threat” to science by the atheist-humanist crowd. Though, as memory serves me, the debates involving politics and religion, and by extension, science, were awfully contentious during the 1980s. Margaret Atwood’s Christian fundamentalist-bashing dystopia The Handmaid’s Tale was released in 1985 and greenlighted for a movie shortly thereafter. At the same time, the threat of Islamic fundamentalism was already well-known in the West. We had already experienced kidnappings, terror bombings, and had to contend with fundamentalist leaders like the Ayatollah Khomeini, who issued his famous fatwa against Salman Rushdie in 1989. So if we discount the reality of “threat” to nonbelievers, and the effect it would have on tone, then the difference between atheists like Dawkins and atheists like Sagan seems to be one of style, substance, and perhaps even decency.

Where have all the nice atheists gone?

Nothing Is Sacred

I give you, George Washington, the mascot of Nuba (牛巴), a Chinese steakhouse chain, in all his Colonel Sanders-riffic glory:

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It’s a little like slapping Chairman Mao’s face on the side of Burger King back in the States. Mmm … Burger Chairman. For what it’s worth, the food was decent, albeit standard Chinese skillet steak fare. I didn’t try the “George Washington chicken” though. Not shown but worth mentioning: the Mercedes-Benz-inspired hot pot restaurant (why?) next door to Nuba.

Note that I tried to Google a website for Nuba, to no avail. But “Everything Is Connected” freaks out there might be interested to know that Nuba is the name of a Sudanese people threatened by the regime in Khartoum, a regime which is supported by a certain unmentionable government. So perhaps, as they face famine, bombardment, and persecution, the Nuba people can take heart that Chinese people will eat at a restaurant bearing their name — and George Washington’s face.

So I Bought a PSP…

…after my X-Box 360 succumbed to the infamous Red Rings of Death and after trying out an iPod touch at the local Apple store.

To begin, I should note that the 360 isn’t out for the count just yet, though as far as the people I bought it from were concerned, it can’t be repaired. The problem here is that X-Boxes aren’t sold commercially in most of China, so Microsoft Tech Support is unavailable. Thankfully, the shop I bought the PSP from says they should be able to repair it, so I’ll give it a shot this week. Such are the travails of a videogamer in China.

The PSP provides a stopgap method to satisfy my twitch reflexes, but it also gives me most of what the iPod touch has to offer.

Now, a serious iPod fanatic would scoff at the notion that a PSP-2000 could compete with an iPod touch. The touch (like the iPhone before it) features an absolutely mesmerizing interface, and that interface alone tempted me to buy it last week. However, setting aside the interface, the core feature set of the touch is — for the time being* — comparable to, or even less than, the PSP’s.

Let’s look at the details:

  • The PSP-2000 is only a little bigger and heavier than the touch.
  • The screen size (4.3 vs. 3.5 inches) and video playback are slightly better on the PSP.
  • Gaming on the PSP is better, which goes without saying.
  • The PSP lacks the minimal productivity functions of the touch, but I already have those on my cell phone.
  • Both feature WiFi, though web browsing is better on the touch thanks to the interface.

In fact, I might have bought an iPod touch instead of the PSP-2000 if I was in the States, but living in China adds a couple other considerations. First, iTunes is of limited use in China since my RMB denominated bank card account can’t pay for downloads. This cripples one of the coolest features of the touch — using WiFi to surf for and download music from the iTunes music store.

The second drawback of getting the touch in China is that, in addition to paying the “Apple premium” for buying the best Cupertino has to offer, Tianjin buyers also have to fork over an additional $100 on top of the $399 list price. The PSP-2000, conversely, has only a $30 markup, and with the 8 GBs of memory** and accessories I bought, it came to $281, as compared to $577 for a similar 16GB iPod package.

For all the beauty of the touch, I can’t ignore that bottom line.

* Obviously, come next year when Apple releases its SDK and developers can turn out legal, stable software, the touch will become considerably more versatile. Add to that a price drop and/or expanded memory and I may consider getting a touch next spring.

** Note that the memory is a Chinese knock-off product rather than real Sony memory. That said, a bonus for me is that I can use the same memory with my Sony Cybershot, increasing the amount of digital video I can shoot.

Brokeback Sinopop

Here’s the cover of Taiwanese superstar Jay Chou’s new album, “On the Run.”

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Not visible here: Jay’s Marilyn Monroe ring and the pink box the album comes in. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

Now, before I be accused of Jay-bashing (sorry for the pun), I like Jay and I suspect I’ll like this album, too. But his new “pink cowboy” motif comes after more than a year of enduring Kangta and Vanness, so I wonder who decided that marketing straight stars as ambiguously gay was the thing to do in China. I guess it’s hardly worse than marketing gay stars as straight, though.

Hmm. That reminds me, I haven’t heard a Wham! song in ages.

Richard Dawkins, Cranky Atheist

This week I watched “The Root of All Evil?,” a 2006 BBC documentary adapted from Richard Dawkins’ book The God Delusion, in which Dawkins, as host, unleashes a long, unrelenting sneer against the three Abrahamic faiths. Ours is a time when religious extremism threatens lives, liberties, and political stability in several regions of the world, so a polemic aimed at such extremism, especially in militant Islam, should be welcomed. But Dawkins is after a bigger target than Islamic death cults: he attacks religion in all its aspects, from its ability to offer consolation to the sick and dying, to its capacity to develop social capital in communities of faith, to the notion that religious morality stems from anything but the fear of God. Someday, a philosopher may make a passionate, convincing brief in favor of atheist humanism, but this isn’t that argument, and after watching him for two hours, Dawkins clearly isn’t the man for the job.

For such a brilliant man in his own fields, Dawkins’ pontifications on religion are tired and stale. Note that for lack of time or personal animus, Dawkins ignores Asian faiths such as Buddhism and Hinduism and instead spends most of his time criticizing Christianity. The usual litany of atheist attacks on Christianity are advanced during the documentary, including a focus on the Old Testament and Paul’s views on the faith while ignoring the Person and the Values of Christ. Catholicism is attacked as little more than an institution in favor of miracles and opposed to birth control, while the Church’s progressive values or nuanced ethical beliefs (such as those outlined in Veritatis Splendor) are wholly ignored. Not surprisingly, profound Christian thinkers from Soren Kierkegaard to Dietrich Bonhoeffer to C.S. Lewis go also unmentioned in the documentary, lest Dawkins be forced to deviate from his “Christian ignoramuses” script.

And if I were to judge Christians based solely on the Christians shown in Dawkins’ documentary, I, too, might find Christianity a ridiculous or disturbing faith. The segments with the Hell House producers and the Paul Hill supporter are eye-rolling at best and infuriating at worst. That said, Dawkins even made me feel a twinge of sympathy for creepy (and now disgraced) megachurch pastor Ted Haggard when Dawkins likens one of their church gatherings to a Nuremberg rally when the documentary itself seems to favor Haggard’s claim that it was “like a rock concert.” Now, calm scholarly sort that I am, I’m not a fan of the megachurches or pop Christianity, but I recognize that they represent another attempt at community-building like the Catholic mass or black American church. Watching Dawkins scowl his way through Haggard’s flock, I couldn’t help but also picture him frowning during a parade or a football game or any other event where a group of people come together in shared feeling. And thank God he wasn’t around at the March on Washington to liken it to Nuremberg.

In fact, Dawkins is not only afraid of Christians in large groups, he’s also against the notion of Christian families. And Jewish families. Muslim families too. For him, and a psychologist he speaks to during the film, childhood religious instruction is a form of child abuse. Dawkins argues that since we’d never call a child of two Conservatives a “Tory child,” why do we label a child according to his/her parents’ religious affiliation? I’m not sure if this is a sign that British society is radically different from the United States or evidence that Dawkins is out of touch, but in America (and here in China too) parents shape the identities of their children across the board — from religion, to politics, to their self-conceptions as members of a race or ethnic group, and we most certainly speak of, among other things, Christian families, Democratic families, and black families. To suppose otherwise is to posit an ideal society where children are alienated from their parents by the power of the State and indoctrinated by would-be Philosopher Kings — an arrangement we’ve wisely chosen to avoid, knock on Popper.

Finally, a key theme in Dawkins’ documentary is to contrast faith and rationalism, stressing the advantages of the former while seemingly exasperated as to why anyone would still be religious in this day and age. Along the way, he actually offers several misrepresentations of science and humanism, draping those of his mindset in an almost — dare I say? — religious mantle.

For instance, Dawkins offers up an anecdote from his college years as proof of the inherent open-mindedness of science and willingness to accept newly discovered truths. According to Dawkins, a professor of his had staunchly defended a particular scientific theory only to have his arguments rebutted by a visitor, who was then thanked by said professor for setting him straight. Yet such gracious acceptance of rival theories tends to be rare (if not nonexistent) in most of science, where adherents of a particular theory will often fight tooth and nail with rivals lest they be overtaken in the latest paradigm shift. In my own former field of political science, for example, I can’t imagine the rational choice types and the perestroikans sitting down to break bread like Dawkins’ exemplary professor.

Similarly, when discussing the nature of morals, Dawkins puts forth an intriguing (though familiar) argument about mankind’s genetic predisposition towards altruism then muddies the water by tying this plausible evolution of cooperation to the way our social attitudes about race and homosexuality have liberalized over the years. (The implied contrast is: religion frowns upon these things, so let’s hear it for natural morality.) What exactly Dawkins is trying to say by linking ancient, inborn morality to modern secular cultural morality — which cannot be inborn unless we accept some version of Lamarckism — is unclear.

While Dawkins and I might agree that minorities and gays and lesbians deserve to be treated with respect, he offers real no argument to explain why his views are justifiable, desirable, or indeed anything but arbitrary choices. He goes on to outline the process of how secular moral views are spread in the media and mass culture, yet this merely explains why they’re popular, not why they’re correct. Moreover, it’s foolish to act as though secular moral views progress on a straight line — as Dawkins seemingly does by deeming said views “progressive” — or that, in the absence of religion, we would automatically follow a morality in line with Mr. Dawkins’ tastes.

This brings me to the most ridiculous little bit in all of Dawkins’ documentary, the quote which inspired Dawkins’ BBC producers to give the documentary such an inflammatory title. After talking to Michael Bray, a supporter of abortion doctor murderer Dr. Paul Hill, and noting what a nice person Mr. Bray seemed to be, Dawkins quotes American physicist Steven Weinberg:

Religion is an insult to human dignity. Without it, you’d have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, it takes religion.

This quote no doubt impresses Dawkins, since he repeats it often. The problem with Doctors Dawkins and Weinberg is, the numbers just aren’t on their side.

Update: Post edited to reformat and clear up a couple of paragraphs.

Four Trips to the Station

One of the common misconceptions foreigners have about China is that the police presence looms everywhere, like in East Germany or the old Soviet Union. While it’s true that China remains a police state in structural terms, the reality is that on most days the police visibility in large cities like Beijing and Tianjin is comparable to, or even smaller than, large Western cities. (This doesn’t hold true during big events or mass incidents, mind you.) In Tianjin, for example, beat cops are actually less prominent than in my hometown, and they generally don’t cruise around looking for crime. The police can be slow to dispatch even when their stations are just minutes away. Likewise, while you can see traffic cops every day in the city, they’re usually deployed alone or in pairs and can be easily overwhelmed during large traffic jams or accidents. As a result, I’ve long wondered whether Tianjin doesn’t have enough police or simply hasn’t learned them to use them efficiently.

On the other hand, while police themselves are not as common as one might expect, the police stations in Chinese cities are everywhere. In the case of Tianjin, local precinct stations (pai chu suo) can be found slapped on one wing of a hospital or school, wedged into an alley, or tucked under an overpass. The conditions of a station vary dramatically according to the local tax base. Stations in rich districts are generally clean and sterile-looking, like a doctor’s office, whereas stations in poorer areas serve to remind you that China is still a developing country.

All of this brings me to the topic of this post. During my nearly four years in China, I’ve had to make four significant trips to the police station. The first time was for something I did; the second time, for something someone else did; the third time, for something I saw; and the fourth time, for something that happened to me. Since the stories that follow push this post towards the 3,000 word mark, I’ve placed my thoughts behind the jump.

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They Used to Be Called Conservative Democrats

I’ve was reading the little blogrow between Jules Crittenden and John Cole overnight. To be honest, I don’t read Balloon Juice as often as I used to, since I figure if I wanted to read profanity-laden rants against President Bush and conservatives, I’d check out Atrios instead, since he perfected the art. That said, it seems to me that Cole is getting criticism — not just from Crittenden but a lot of right-wing bloggers — for a change away from being someone he never really was.

I’ve known Cole for a long time, and he was never a rock-ribbed conservative Republican, but a “libertarian with a defense budget” (as I called him in a conversation ca. 2002). People like Cole were in the Republican Party because they were serious about national defense and opposed to big government, and on these two fronts Bush and Congressional Republicans have largely failed the GOP and failed the American people. And like many who supported Bush in 2004, Cole has a heavy case of buyer’s remorse. Accordingly, an honest conservative will assess where the blame lies for Cole’s “shift” and find the Republican leadership’s fingerprints all over.

Based on his positions, and given that there are still no voices within the Republican Party offering credible alternatives to Bush, I can’t criticize Cole for changing his party affiliation or even the one-sided nature of his blogging today. That doesn’t mean he’s suddenly a “lefty,” and if conservatives want to pile on because of a sense of betrayal, they’re missing the big picture. For one thing, people like Cole in the Democratic Party used to be called conservative Democrats, and I can’t recall any successful Republican candidate dismissing them outright as “lefties.” The point being, to win as a national party, Republicans need the support of people like John Cole, and if the big tent is closed to them, it condemns the party to being a national party no more.

P.S. If the first instinct of certain Republican bloggers continues to be to post their opponents’ personal information, they’re going to find a lot more people who sound like John Cole in the future.