Politics: March 2008 Archives
Beijing is facing a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don't scenario right now in southern Africa, and one that threatens to bring more heat on a central Chinese government already struggling to paint a positive image of itself in the midst of international criticism over the situation in Tibet. At issue is the election in Zimbabwe.
As it stands now, the people of Zimbabwe are waiting to find out whether President Robert Mugabe's ZANU-PF will maintain its 28 year hold on power, or whether the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) will take over. Governments the world over are watching this situation quite closely, and none more than Zimbabwe's largest investor, China. But rather than having any sort of concern over losing investment in Zimbabwe, the central government is most likely concerned about what a Mugabe win will do when it comes to public relations on the international stage.
In the lead up to the British handover of Zimbabwe back to its people in 1980, two Marxist factions within the country warred with one another for ultimate supremacy. The then-Soviet Union backed the Zimbabwe African People's Union (ZAPU), while China put its support behind Mugabe's Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU). China bet on the right horse, with Mugabe's ZANU sweeping into power in the 1980 elections. From that point on, the Chinese government has been one of Mr. Mugabe's strongest supporters, and continues to heap aide and investment into his country, despite numerous sanctions levied against the Zimbabwean government over alleged human rights abuses. As such, these elections in Zimbabwe this weekend couldn't have come at a worse time for China.
Many observers believe that Mr. Mugabe will not release his grip on power, even if the polls show that the MDC has won victory. And, given previous election controversy in Zimbabwe, even if Mr. Mugabe's ZANU-PF does win, it's highly likely that the results of the vote will be condemned by the majority of the international community, given consistent allegations of vote rigging. Hence the bad PR situation Beijing finds itself in.
If Mr. Mugabe is declared the winner, Beijing will be obligated to sanctify the election results and continue to throw its support behind Mr. Mugabe's government, which will fly in the face of the vast majority of the international community, and will give more fuel for those who would use China's actions as a reason to boycott the Olympics. If Mr. Mugabe loses, but still maintains power, Beijing will be called to the carpet to justify allowing Chinese companies to continue to do business in a country with an illegitimate government.The best case scenario for Beijing is the election and safe transition of power to Morgan Tsvangirai and his MDC. Whether or not that will happen is anyone's guess over the coming hours and days. If it does, the CPC might lose an ideological partner, but will avoid giving more political ammunition for the anti-China ideologues around the world.
With all the turmoil and controversy that's been brewing in China's southwestern regions as of late, I find it somewhat ironic that this week has seen a self-motivated decision of an autocratic leadership to endow its people with the right to choose. And right next door, no less. I direct your attention to Bhutan.
This country is really an enigma, and is simply unknown to the vast majority of the world, given its size, location and policies toward tourism. Known to its people as the Land of the Thunder Dragon, and often described as the last Shangri-La, Bhutan this week became a democracy. After just over 100 years of Royal rule, the people of Bhutan voted on Monday in parliamentary elections for the first time ever.
Bhutan is really an interesting story, and one that could call into question the CPC's theory about 'liberating a backwards people.' For those who aren't familiar with Bhutan, allow me to give you a somewhat brief synopsis of the country.
The Bhutanese people share a common ancestry with the Tibetans and the Nepalese. Some archaeological evidence suggests that the region might have been settled around 4,000 years ago, but no one is really sure. Bhutan wasn't even really a country until the early 1600's when a Tibetan lama unified a collection of tribal states under one law. And in 1907 Bhutan became an absolute monarchy. From all accounts, the Bhutanese people were quite happy to be ruled by the monarchy. But despite this, the monarchy decided in 2005 to bring in a new constitution, and the vote by the people this week officially sealed Bhutan as the world's newest democracy.
Bhutan's whole mandate is happiness. In fact, this is a country that has developed a system to measure happiness. It's even got a term: Gross National Happiness. Though it's pretty difficult to define, it is a system that Bhutan uses to measure quality of life. Because Bhutan is made up predominantly of Buddhists and some Hindus, there is a very strong spiritual base. As such, back in 1972 the then-king decided that instead of focusing on economic development, his country would try to grow under a more holistic approach, something that flies in the face of the break-neck economic growth mandate Bhutan's giant neighbor to the north has undertaken. Still, Bhutan's economy is growing quite quickly. In 2006, Bhutan's Gross Domestic Product grew by 14 percent, thanks to the sale of Hydro electric power to India. And a survey done to calculate the Gross National Happiness in 2005 showed that 45 percent of Bhutanese were 'very happy,' 52 percent were just 'happy' and 3 percent were 'unhappy.' It's with this in mind that I consider the 'liberation' of Tibet by China.
Nobody came into Bhutan and messed with it. Nobody tried to 'help' it develop. The world left Bhutan alone. As a result, the some 700,000 people of Bhutan are now determining their own political future and - according to the GNH stats from that country - seem to be doing just fine.
What's done is done. No one can change what has happened with Tibet. But given what is happening next door in Bhutan, I can't help but wonder what things would be like if the Chinese government didn't decide to 'help' in Tibet some 50 odd years ago.
When I first arrived in China over two years ago, I was somewhat irked by the fact that I was unable to get my daily dose of news from the BBC. Now after using hundreds of Proxies, and investing in a VPN -- What happens? You guessed it. It's unblocked -- kind of. It seems as though the firewall is still in place for Chinese language services on the website and for any links in Chinese.
'People in China are able to access English language stories on the BBC News website in full, after years of strict control by Beijing.
The Communist authorities often block news sites such as the BBC in a policy dubbed the "great firewall of China".
But BBC staff working in China now say they are able to access news stories that would have been blocked before.'
Now, the cynic in me questions the reasoning behind this. And bear with me here. Could it be that this website has become unblocked as part of a 'knee jerk' reaction to the fact that Media coverage of recent events has, at best, been 'questionable due in part, to the fact that foreign journalists have been denied access to these troubled areas? And that the authorities are trying to give a 'balanced' viewpoint to those that can read English? Or, is it another way to inflame people by saying: 'Look, this is what they're saying...'
Or are we seeing the start of the 'Opening Up' policy in the final countdown to the Olympics? If so, why have the BBC been rejected by the Chinese government as part of the foreign media organisations trip to Tibet?
Full article available here.
I find it difficult being on the edge of a knife at times. It is often difficult being a Western journalist who works for a state-run organization here in the Middle Kingdom. That being said, I do love my life here in China. The people are generally friendly and the weather isn't as bad as I thought it would be (save the 'non-blue sky days). But what drew me to China more than anything was the fact that I was just not happy in my native Canada. And why was I unhappy? It wasn't the non-blue sky days or the liberal freedoms that we're entitled to as Canadians. No... it was the hypocracy and unfavorable way in which those who choose to idealize a subject will portray it in the media organs that I worked at.
I love being a Westerner in China. It affords me a lot of opportunities that otherwise wouldn't be available to me. It also gives me a chance to absorb different concepts and theories that aren't my own. Are they right? Not sure. Maybe some. Maybe not. I'm not one to make a definative judgement on the grander scale. I mean, who is (minus your particular diety)? But what I do get peeved at is obvious attempts within the media to skew a concept to their own thinking. I posit this slight snippit from the South China Morning Post article about the situation in Tibet as an example of what I'm trying to convey:
Scholars condemn Beijing over Tibet
Beijing should open up talks with the Dalai Lama, allow UN investigators into Tibet and stop using rhetoric redolent of the Cultural Revolution, mainland intellectuals have said in an open letter.
The article goes on to say the letter was penned by
"30 intellectuals, including writer Wang Lixiong, a respected author on Tibet, dissident writer Liu Xiaobo, novelest Yu Jie, human rights lawyer Pu Zhiqiang and Ding Zilin of the Tian'anmen Mothers group, which represents families of victims of the Tian'anmen Square crackdown.
Ok... well, I understand why these people would be making these statements. And hell, I probably agree with them. But to use this item, and these people who have and obvious axe to grind against the government, as the front left article on page 4 of the in SCMP, which also includes the banner:
Well... I'm no editor...but really?
This whole Tibet issue has become too polarized. We need to take a step back from the situation, especially those of us in the media. I can understand why we Westerners have this prediliction toward wanting to back up this cause. Hey, it's catchy... people dig it... it's the groovy thing to talk about. But when it comes to reporting on it, let's try to get our 'facts' in line. The 'fact' is that we have no 'facts.' And using B-S like this from a group of 'scholars' is just a cheap way to fill a page, and does nothing toward understanding the situation that is unfolding.
As I've stated on numerous occasions in the past, I don't mind at all when someone sticks their finger in this government's eye from time to time. But when it comes to the Olympics, I don't think it's the right move. Anyone who has spent more than 10 minutes in this country knows that this government and the people in general are going 'koo koo for Olympic puffs,' or something to that effect. They're throwing their heart and soul into trying to prove that China is all growed up and ready to come out and play with the big boys. As such, if there are empty seats on August 8th beside Hu Jintao, Chiang Kai-shek might just see his opening.
The CPC knows how to hold a grudge. And nothing is going to piss off this government more than screwing with this country's 'coming out party.' As such, my advice to world leaders is to tread cautiously when it comes to this issue. Criticize from afar if you so desire, but when August 8th rolls around, just kick back and enjoy the show, because, even with the dramatic loss of Spielberg, I have a feeling that his Mexican, non-union equivalent has a shiny firework or two in his bag of tricks that should make for some at least mild entertainment to crack open the 2008 Games.
Beijing's proximity to the Gobi Desert aside, what's really got my dander up today isn't the fact that Premier Wen Jiabao spewed a boatload of nothing for an hour to the foreign media news conference...it was the phraseology that this government has adopted when it comes to the situation with the Tibetans, and in particular with their spiritual leader. The Dalai Lama's supporters have now become a 'clique.'
Unlike many of my fellow Westerners, I have very little interest in the Tibetan independence movement. Call it apathy if you will, or perhaps a lack of understanding, but I've become somewhat jaded by the fact that many a self-righteous wanker has jumped onboard the Tibetan cause because it seems like the cool thing to do. I don't begrudge the Tibetans for doing what they think they need to do. Give'r. But don't start preaching to me about the right to freedom and all this other kind of crap because you watched Richard Gere on Barbara Walters and thought that he made a lot of sense and you really, really liked him in "Pretty Woman." But what I find more highly condescending is the Chinese government's coining of the 'Dalai clique.' I'm sorry...what??? Spiritual Buddhists who are shooting for their autonomy aren't a bunch of 8th graders sitting around at the mall trying to conjure up theories as to how they're going to get someone to pick them up a 12 pack of Schlitz. Call them rebels, traitors, malcontents or whatever. But don't equate these people - the same people you're claiming to want to help - to a high school 'posse' who want to chill in their 'crib.'
I've seen the Dalai Lama speak in person. I'm not religious by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, if it turns out there is a god, he/she probably has me on the pious version of the FBI's 10 Most Wanted List. However, watching him speak, at the time side by side with the Bishop Desmond Tutu in a stadium in Vancouver, I couldn't help but be impressed with the ease in which he cavorted with his religious counterpart and avoided the temptation someone in his position might have had to politicize his speech, instead talking about how love for one's fellow human being is going to be the key to world peace. I found what he said simple, yet profound in its simplicity. I left the event (which I was covering for work) with a new found respect for a man I really had little knowledge about. So, when the Chinese government starts throwing around juvenile, school yard language to describe those who have respect for the Dalai Lama, I can't help but be personally offended. If I ever happen to cross paths with the spin doctor who coined this distinction, I would have two words: Grow up.
Reading the news items from my home country about a Parliamentary vote on Thursday has just reinforced my concerns that while we as Canadians consider ourselves open and 'of the world,' that in fact, a good percentage of the population really has no clue about the realities in the rest of the world. And it is idiots, like this twinkie pictured here, that I'm referring too. This dolt was a protester who had to be removed from Parliament because he was protesting against a Commons vote to extend Canada's mission in Afghanistan.
Thankfully, 198 of our Members of Parliament had enough sense to vote to extend the mission, compared to the 77 ideologues who would pander to the protesters for their votes, rather than trying to take a clear look at the situation that country has faced the last 30 years.
Afghanistan is wedged in what I would describe as a geographical and political no-man's land. In fact, I'm quite sure a lot of people here in China don't even realize that Afghanistan actually shares a border, albeit a small one, with their country. Hence why all the Afghanistan scenes in the recently-released (and already readily available in good quality DVD form here in China) film "The Kite Runner" were shot near Kashgar, in western Xinjiang. And to many Canadians, Afghanistan is just some place over there in the Middle East. And while a lot of people like to equate the ongoing conflict in that country to the widely reviled 'war on terror' of the Bush administration, the reality is that the world has simply neglected Afghanistan for far too long. A lot of people, especially the younger generation, have either forgotten or don't even know that Afghanistan was ground zero in the fight for dominance between the United States and the Soviet Union toward the end of the Cold War. For those unaware, in an effort to extend its influence toward the Middle East region, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979 to prop up the then-Marxist government in power in Afghanistan, which was facing stiff resistance from the Mujahideen. What resulted was a 9 year war between the Soviets and the CIA-backed Mujahideen fighters that eventually saw CCCP forces withdraw, eventually leading to enough discontent in Russia to spark the democratic revolution that led to the fall of the Soviet Union a few years later. And how was Afghanistan rewarded by the United States and its anti-communist allies for its role in all this? Neglect. After the Soviets withdrew, the world - including its large and border-sharing neighbor to the east China -- simply forgot about Afghanistan. I can sum this point up no better than in the final quote in the 2007 Academy Award nominated film "Charlie Wilson's War" (an excellent watch, by the way): 'We did a lot of great things in Afghanistan...then we fucked up the end game.' - Charlie Wilson. As such, ignorance of the country eventually let the zealots in the country take over, and led us to the situation that it's in today.
Nobody, especially me, likes the idea of war... but I say bravo to those Canadian MP's who voted to support the efforts to stabilize Afghanistan by keeping our troops there until at least 2011. And to the MP's and protesters who decided against it, I posit this thought: Let the Taliban retake control of the country, then plan your next overseas vacation there, because I would just love to see how well they would welcome and treat you as a non-radicalized Muslim guest!
I only hope that one day Afghanistan will become stable enough for me to feel safe visiting, because as a person who loves the past, I find that country -- the cross road between the West and the East -- a facinating place with a rich and often unknown history.
This week's work on the news beat (and I use the term 'news' somewhat sheepishly) has given me an opportunity to reflect on how the lines can often become blurred when it comes to politics, people and our perceptions of both.
Earlier this week I had a chance to go to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs building here in Beijing (a building that must have cost a small fortune, judging by the elaborate art work on display in the lobby) to interview a man by the name of Liu Guijin. For those who are not familiar with the name, he is the man that Beijing tapped last year to be China's special envoy to Darfur. As such, Mr. Liu has been the subject of a lot of intense scrutiny and has been labeled by many people as the poster boy for China's involvement in Sudan. (which, as we all are pretty well aware, isn't looked upon very favorably by a lot of folks around the world) I'm not going to bother going into a lot of what Mr. Liu had to say during our 30 minute interview (complete with video, much to my embarrassment, on this link), mainly because it was all on message and never strayed from the Chinese government's consistent stance, which is that China is being unfairly criticized in the media and by foreign governments for not doing enough to stop the fighting. And, I don't really want to bother getting into the debate over whether or not this contention is correct. (but you folks go right ahead, if that tickles your fancy) But what I did find somewhat interesting was our chat after the microphone was off.
Because I've been in the media for over 10 years now, I have rubbed shoulders with my fair share of politicians and diplomats. Of course, most often this has always been in an official capacity. Generally politicians and members of the media rarely go beyond the politician/reporter relationship, mainly because the politician is worried about the reporter writing about the man behind the message, and the reporter is worried that if they get too close to the politician it will obscure their objectivity. That being said, I've come to know a good number of politicians on a more personal level. Some are generally good folks, others are complete wankers. And in the case of Mr. Liu, I have to say that I found him to be in the former. Mr. Liu knew that I am Canadian, and was quick to point out that his wife was one of the first students in China to be allowed to study abroad in Canada in the 1970's. (He said she studied at the University of Ottawa and at UBC in Vancouver) He also revealed that his own university education in Shanghai was cut off after one year by the start of the Cultural Revolution, and that he was one of the thousands of 'rusticated youth' who were sent out the countryside - as Mr. Liu somewhat dismissively and, with the ever so slight tinge of distain, said was - to further reduce their bourgeoisie tendencies. He also admitted that while he's happy to be serving his government, the Darfur gig is something he won't want to be doing for the foreseeable future. Bottom line, I would add Liu Guijin to the list of politicians that I wouldn't mind sitting down and having a beer with.
My interview got me to thinking afterward, though, about how often times we perceive politics as personality. I have lost count of how many times listeners to the various radio stations I've worked at will call up and criticize either myself, my colleagues or the people we interview in personal, and often scathing attacks because they didn't agree with how the story was portrayed or the politics or message that said interviewee was putting forward. Same thing happens all the time in the blogosphere as well. And, to be honest, being in the public spotlight, if these types of things don't roll off you, they'll eat you alive. As such, you just learn to accept that people consider you a free public service or tool at their disposal to treat as they will. So this leads me to my main question for you: Can, or should, we separate the message from the man, or is the man's (or woman's, of course) character invariably linked to the message they put out?