Things that are against the rules in a cab in Bangkok by mattsteinglass
October 16, 2010, 1:08 pm
Filed under: Asia, Culture

It’s a little hard to see in this blown-up detail of an iPhone shot, but these icons show you what’s off-limits in a Bangkok airport taxi.


Bangkok cab no-nos

Bangkok cab no-nos


For reference, that’s:

  • smoking
  • durian (world’s smelliest fruit)
  • drinking alcohol
  • pets
  • having sex
  • firearms
  • livestock

On the “cultural similarities” index, the “having sex” icon represents the missionary position. On the other hand, I think the differentiation between “pets” and “livestock” would probably be unnecessary in an American cab.

Singapore's PM is the old PM's son, but surely no nepotism was involved by mattsteinglass
March 30, 2010, 4:04 am
Filed under: Asia, democracy, Human Rights, Uncategorized

I think the New York Times phrased this “apology” exactly right.

Apology: In 1994, Philip Bowring, a contributor to the International Herald Tribune’s op-ed page, agreed as part of an undertaking with the leaders of the government of Singapore that he would not say or imply that Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong had attained his position through nepotism practiced by his father Lee Kuan Yew. In a February 15, 2010, article, Mr. Bowring nonetheless included these two men in a list of Asian political dynasties, which may have been understood by readers to infer that the younger Mr. Lee did not achieve his position through merit. We wish to state clearly that this inference was not intended. We apologize to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew and former Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong for any distress or embarrassment caused by any breach of the undertaking and the article.

Personally, I’m quite sure that Lee Hsien Loong achieved his post entirely on the basis of merit, and that the fact that his father, Lee Kuan Yew, was the founding Prime Minister of Singapore, dominated its politics for 40 years, and still carries the title “Minister Mentor” has nothing to do with it. Further, I don’t think the above item in the NY Times has anything to do with the fact that in Singapore, organizations that publish unflattering things about people who happen to be related to the Prime Minister, and who often themselves happen to hold important offices in government, tend to get sued for hundreds of thousands of dollars. And I think that to suggest that this system represents a privatized sophisticated commercial-law version of the types of oppression of free expression that exist in, say, Communist dictatorships would be completely inaccurate and quite probably libelous under Singapore law.

Rebiya Kadeer and the irrelevence of exile by foarp
July 11, 2009, 12:46 pm
Filed under: Asia, China, democracy

[by FOARP]

The line on the Xinjiang disturbances from the Chinese government, whilst initially dabbling with a condemnation of terrorism, has coalesced around the narrative of ‘foreign forces’ interfering with China and the ‘three evils’ of ‘separatism’, ‘extremism’ and ‘terrorism’, just as it did after last year’s riots in Tibet. Just as with last year’s events ‘evidence’ has been produced showing how the entire thing was organised by the World Uyghur Congress, of which Rebiya Kadeer, an exiled Uyghur businesswoman, is the head. The evidence produced so far would seem to point to the WUC having communicated with people in Xinjiang before the initial demonstrations and encouraged them. Whilst I’m sure this will convince a lot of people in China, at least to the extent that the government can convince people of anything, there is an obvious difference between ‘demonstrations’ and ‘violent riots leading to the deaths of innocent people’ , more to the point, large scale demonstrations (such as in 1997) have taken place without any foreign involvement whatsoever.

In fact, there’s good reason to doubt that exiled movements can have that much of an impact on circumstances within a dictatorship. Whilst the Tibetan devotees of lamaist Buddhism continue to follow and obey the current Dalai Lama, he owes much of his influence (as did Khomeini pre-1979) on his position as a religious leader. In contrast, the student leaders of the 1989 Tiananmen protests are nowadays either unknown or largely reviled within China. When ethnic-Uyghur 1989 student leader and “China’s second most wanted” Wu’er Kaixi (for some reason he prefers to use his Uighur name as transcribed in Chinese characters) attempted to return to the mainland last year he was refused entry. Some might ascribe this to the desire to avoid giving him a public platform or to avoid an open breach with Taiwan where he has now taken up citizenship, but given the way such trials take place in secret another explanation presents itself – that he is more useful to the Chinese authorities where he is.

It is exceedingly easy for a dictatorial government to smear a person as being a foreign puppet when their first move on being pushed into exile is to go directly to a country which is a hated enemy and rely on funding from either the government of that country or from an NGO (such as the NED) which may or may not receive government funding, and provides grist to the mill of conspiracy theorists. The fact that these people did not choose to go into exile, that few countries would allow them entry, and that they had no resources to rely on in that country, are not communicated to public. Even those exiles who decide to avoid politics may still be useful in government propaganda. 1989 student leader Chai Ling now runs a software firm in the US with her husband, and has enjoyed a level of success not unexpected for someone who got into one of China’s top universities. Pro-government commenters nowadays emphasise her enrichment in the US and abandonment of the democracy movement.

Even where an anti-government movement gains traction inside a dictatorship, this is often little to do with the efforts of exiles. As Chinese exile Wan Runnan wrote about a visit to Poland after the fall of communism there:

“we asked Solidarity Union friends a stupid question: When the Polish military government began suppression, a number of dissidents went into exile overseas. What did these people do in the latter changes inside Poland? They replied without any pause: Nothing whatsoever. Then they sensed our embarrassment and consoled us: “Those exiles served some purpose because they gave us some fax machines and stuff.” . . . . I was aware of the effect of overseas democratic movement very early on. I met Dai Qing (戴晴) overseas and she said: “You do not have a place in the future change in China.” I replied: Yes. The change in China is like a chemical reaction with reagents and products. We are just the temperature, pressure and catalyst that bring about this chemical reaction and we do not have a position in the final product.”

Recent events in Xinjiang show the truth of this, whilst it is possible that the Rebiya Kadeer and the WUC were the driving force behind the demonstrations, all the evidence that we have shows that the initial demonstrations were carried out by university students organised by their lecturers. Whilst it is impossible for me to confirm this, a long-time Xinjiang resident friend of mine described the subsequent riots as being the work of “scumbags from outlying areas who move to Urumqi after being slung out of their towns and villages”. The fact that the demonstrations took place in Urumqi only would also point to the WUC not actually being the driving force of these demonstrations, subsequent demonstrations at other towns appear to have been in response to the crackdown, especially the closing of mosques. Should the Iranian government succeed in running Mousavi overseas a similar dynamic is likely to take over.

Are Western journalists working for oppressive regimes ‘stooges’? by foarp
July 10, 2009, 6:10 pm
Filed under: Asia, China, Iran, Media


The news that Nick Ferrari, a presenter of Iranian state-owned English-language news channel Press TV, has quit his job at Press TV’s London studios in protest of the crushing of demonstrators there, has brought into focus the issue of western journalists working in the state media of oppressive regimes. Whilst it might be natural to simply label all such journalists either has-beens or willing tools of their employers, the fact that a journalist of the calibre of Andrew Gilligan (Telegraph ‘London Editor’ and he of David Kelly-affair fame) works for them was enough to give me pause.

Iran is just one of the oppressive or authoritarian regimes to launch its own English-language news media in the past few years in an effort to get its own version of the story across. Chinese Central Television (CCTV) launched its English-language station CCTV 9 back in 2000, including news programs fronted by western journalists, one of whom went on to front a program at Press TV. The Russia Information Agency (RIA) launched its Russia Today news channel in 2005, which came to particular prominence during last year’s South Ossetia war when one of its western correspondents also quit over skewed reporting. Another channel which might be included in this is the Al-Jazeera news channel, subsidised as it is by the Emir of Qatar, although this channel has gained much more of a reputation for fair reporting than any of the other channels mentioned here.

The question is, why would anyone who is aware of the nature of the governments behind such channels wish to work for them? Firstly, some would seem to have an almost child-like ignorance of the potentially compromising position that their work puts them in. When asked in an interview with the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post why he would work for CCTV, Eddie Maher, a New Zealand-born who achieved a degree of fame whilst working as an weatherman in Australia, replied that he saw his job as:

“not trying to read into the news, not thinking about what is behind the content. Politically sensitive news, like any other news, has to be read clearly. That is my bottom line. Because I’m in China, some news may be regarded as politically sensitive or whatever, but that doesn’t affect my interpretation of it to the audience.”

Others are clearly ideological fellow-travellers of their employers. For example, self-styled ‘anti-zionist’ and host of Press TV’s “The Real Deal” George Galloway presumably sees nothing wrong with Press TV’s hosting of articles denying the Holocaust on its website. However, there are those who seem to genuinely believe that they can make a difference through working for what are little batter than government mouthpieces. Richard Burger, long-time China-blogger and, until recently, foreign editor and columnist for the Chinese state-owned Global Times said in a recent interview that:

“My own conclusion is that they sincerely want to present the foreigners and English-speaking Chinese here and abroad with a different type of newspaper experience. Sure, they toe the party line on certain topics, but even on the most sensitive of these, they seem willing to present alternative viewpoints, even if they are directly and outspokenly critical of the government.

I think this will be their signature, a panoramic view of the news with lots of analysis and discussion. As I said, it does tow the party line, but they seem genuine about allowing
serious dissent and disagreement “

Indeed, Global Times has made some relatively liberal moves, such as an editorial which, whilst not actually describing the events, dealt with the impact of the Tiananmen square massacre in a sympathetic way. All the same, the taint of having worked for the state media of an oppressive regime and rendering overt assistance to government policy, as compared to the tacit assistance rendered through working for such a government in education or industry will be difficult to avoid.

Should we ban sex-selective abortion? by mattsteinglass
June 17, 2009, 1:19 am
Filed under: Asia, Gender, United States

William Saletan “attempts a gotcha” (notes Scott Lemieux) by asking pro-choicers whether they oppose restrictions on sex-selective abortions:

Would you oppose regulation even of abortions aimed at preventing the births of girls? Because there’s increasing evidence that such abortions, which take place by the millions in Asia, are now being done by the thousands in the United States as well.

I happen to live in a country where abortion as such is unrestricted and extremely common, but where abortions aimed at preventing the births of girls are illegal. In fact, here in Vietnam, it is illegal for doctors even to inform expectant parents of the sex of their child before birth, in order to preclude such sex-selective abortions. And guess what? These regulations are completely ineffective. Doctors flout the rules, telling mothers after sonograms that “it looks like you have a butterfly” (girl) or “a bird” (boy). Widespread sex-selective abortion contributes to a clearly unbalanced sex ratio at birth. According to UNFPA, in 2008, 112 boys were born for every 100 girls, up from 110 in 2006.

Saletan cites a recent NY Times article about the apparent use of sex-selective abortions among Asian-Americans. He might have noted this point made in that very article, by a doctor who performs such abortions:

“It’s a real touchy thing,” Dr. Steinberg said. “It’s illegal in Asia, and culturally, it’s private.”

Apparently, legal restrictions on sex-selective abortion don’t work in the countries where they exist. So, yes, I would oppose regulation of abortions aimed at preventing the births of girls.

That said, however, I actually agree with Saletan that these questions are worth asking:

Should schools teach that aborting girls is wrong? Should doctors counsel couples not to do it? Should community leaders speak out against it?…What about purveyors of sex selection? Roberts notes that at least one assisted reproduction provider, the Fertility Institutes, offers sex selection and “has unabashedly advertised its services in Indian- and Chinese-language newspapers in the United States.” …The clinic’s medical director, Dr. Jeffrey Steinberg, says the practice is “not harming anyone.” Is he right? Should he be allowed to continue peddling sex selection (as he does in this video) to Asian-Americans?

Yes, yes, yes, and no. The apparent high rates of abortion of girl embryos among Asian-Americans stem from the remnants of systemic prejudice against women in Asian-American culture. In the United States, we have a culture of gender equality. Our public institutions and community leaders should make it clear that aborting female embryos because they are female is wrong. And Dr. Steinberg should not be allowed to advertise the practice. To say that we should not criminalize something is not to say that people should be allowed to develop an industry around it.

Democracy vs. technocracy in Washington and Beijing by mattsteinglass
June 5, 2009, 9:46 am
Filed under: Asia, China, democracy, United States

I’m about to travel to Helsinki to discuss freedom of the press with a couple of excellent and eminent Chinese journalists. So I’ve been thinking a lot about the question of progress towards democracy in East Asia and whether or not it’s really happening, or whether it’s actually something else that’s happening. And on this anniversary of the crushing of pro-democracy protests in Tiananmen 20 years ago, it seems apt to talk about what’s happening with Medicare.

Wha…? Bear with me. Ezra Klein and a number of others have been talking recently about an Obama Administration initiative to take Medicare policy making away from Congress and give it to MedPAC, basically a technocratic commission that’s been around making smart recommendations for over a decade but has no power to implement the changes it recommends. In his initial post on the subject, Klein wrote this:

Medicare payment policy is too technical for the Congress. There aren’t five senators with an informed opinion on the “equipment use standard” for imaging machines, much less 50, and much less 100.

That’s undoubtedly true. More generally, health care policy is one of any number of areas in the US where urgently needed policy changes are being paralyzed by…well, basically, by democracy. When Asians of a certain ideological cast say they don’t want multiparty representative democracy, or don’t want “too much” multiparty democracy, and so forth, this is exactly the argument they use. How can legislators be expected to understand complicated regulatory issues thoroughly? How can the public be expected to understand them at all? Why should we set policy by empowering political demagogues to form parties that struggle over power using different policy positions as cheap rhetorical weapons? Can this really be the best way to chart the course of government? Doesn’t policy and governance wind up overwhelmed by the vicious, noisy, potentially violent struggle for power? Or paralyzed by factional warfare?

The MedPAC proposal, the increasing importance of the Federal Reserve in making and implementing economic policy, the looming bankruptcy of California due to populist referendums and political polarization, the abdication of Congress from questions of national “defense” and war-making, the apparent political impossibility of cutting carbon emissions enough to avoid climatological disaster…all of these are evidence that governance in the 21st century is posing problems that electoral democracy is hard-pressed to solve. When Asians think about multiparty competitive democracy, they may increasingly draw a contrast not between the US and the USSR — the contrast still assumed by many Americans — but between, say, China and Thailand. The challenge posed by the success of technocratic elite governance in China and Singapore is the possibility that government in the current era may increasingly demand not more democracy, but less.

It’s possible that this thesis is completely wrong. Perhaps it’s still true that responsibility towards one’s citizens through multiparty elections is the best or only guarantee of good governance. But then again, maybe not.

So that’s what I’m thinking about as I head to Helsinki.

Whose attention does North Korea want? by mattsteinglass
May 26, 2009, 9:11 pm
Filed under: Asia, Europe, Foreign Policy, Korea

Matthew Yglesias writes:

I guess it strikes me that the DPRK’s nose for grabbing attention seems a bit off if they’re deciding to do this over what’s a holiday weekend in the United States.

Depends on whose attention you’re trying to grab. It was a holiday weekend in the US, but I hear there was some kind of Asia-Europe foreign policy summit opening that day in Hanoi, followed immediately by an ASEAN-EU ministerial meeting in Phnom Penh that a lot of the same foreign ministers were going to.

NK nuke freaks out ASEM by mattsteinglass
May 26, 2009, 12:24 pm
Filed under: Asia, Burma, Korea, Vietnam

45 chief diplomats from all over Europe and Asia had just gathered in Hanoi for the ASEM Foreign Ministers’ Meeting on Monday morning when the news came through that North Korea had detonated its second nuclear bomb.

ASEM meetings, like most Asian multilateral diplomatic gatherings, are generally pretty soporific affairs. (Not that European, African or American summits are exactly free-for-alls of creative thinking and provocative debate. But it’s a difference of degree.) Nothing is said which might conceivably offend the sensibilities of any of the countries involved. Let’s put it this way: the country that generally says the most outrageous and provocative stuff at an Asian diplomatic summit is Japan. That may give you an idea of how mild-mannered the tone usually is.

This morning was about as close as an Asian multilateral meeting gets to a general freak-out. Everyone had expected the  main action to focus on Myanmar. By re-trying Aung San Suu Kyi over a bizarre Boy Scouting escapade gone wrong, Myanmar had managed to bring things to a point where everyone, even its ASEAN neighbors, felt compelled to issue a note of clear if modest disapproval. The lead, of course, would be taken by the EU nations to whom the rest of the world generally subcontracts its moral-disapproval duties these days. But this time it seemed a fair number of Asian nations might be expected to follow along.

And so at about 11:15 am, in the nearly empty marble halls of Hanoi’s three-year-old National Convention Center, Myanmar’s Foreign Minister Nyan Win and his aides went into a meeting with two EU Foreign Ministers, Jan Kohout of the Czech Republic and Carl Bildt of Sweden. The EU handles such affairs via what it call its “troika”: a representative of the European Commission, a representative of the country holding the rotating EU presidency (currently the Czechs), and a representative of the country on deck to take over the presidency next year (Sweden).

By the time they came out an hour later, everyone was talking about the North Korean nuclear test.

A party of Burmese diplomats confronts the press in a fashion similar to a school of herrings confronting dolphins: they turn in unison and break for open water, silently and as quickly as possible — in this case, the elevators. The Burmese were followed by Kohout, a tall, stocky guy who stopped in front of the TV cameras and began answering questions from his own national press, in Czech. Most of the press thus gravitated to the towering, cranelike figure of Carl Bildt. Bildt is a sober and imposing presence with the Scandinavian diplomat’s talent for saying rather obvious and unobjectionable things in emphatic and forceful tones — the righteous common sense of a Calvinist preacher.


Myanmar FM Nyan Win flees from reporters at ASEM

Myanmar FM Nyan Win flees from reporters at ASEM



Bildt said his government, on behalf of the EU, had called for the release of Aung San Suu Kyi in order to create the proper atmosphere for Myanmar’s upcoming elections next year. “What is necessary for those elections is to have an inclusive dialogue with all political forces in the country. That is the necessary precondition for the stability that I think everyone is seeking for the country to be able to move forward,” Bildt said. “And for that to be possible, there must of course be freedom for the different political forces.”

Who could possibly disagree with such a common-sense statement of democratic principles? But what makes these situations slightly surreal is that no one in their right mind, Mr. Bildt included, could possibly expect that the Burmese government has any interest in guaranteeing “freedom for the different political forces.” Such freedom is not really conceivable in a Burmese context. In fact, across most of East Asia, from Singapore to Vietnam to China, the idea that political action should be allowed to take place in a protected sphere free of government interference or fear of retribution is nonsense. It’s not just that governments don’t permit such freedom; it’s that for the most part culture and society do not expect such freedom, do not consider it a priority or even understand how it is supposed to work. The spectacle presented is of an experienced, intelligent European diplomat calling in clear and common-sense terms for the respect of human rights that everyone knows do not exist, in a regime that has no interest in introducing them.

The sense of surreality grew some hours later, when Japan called an unscheduled press conference to announce that it was seeking a forceful response to the North Korean nuclear test. Japanese Foreign Ministry Spokesman Kazuo Kodama rushed in, out of breath, to announce that Japan would…push for ASEM to issue a separate statement on the test. The nuclear test was a “threat to the peace and stability…of the global community.” And that was about it. What did he think the North Koreans were aiming for? What strategy could the international community use to bring them around? Kodama had not a word on this.

And yet for all that, one senses that these repeated invocations of common-sense points — testing nuclear weapons violates the nuclear nonproliferation regime and threatens world security; repressing the political opposition makes it impossible to carry out legitimate elections — are slowly having an effect. What’s clear at this ASEM meeting is that Myanmar and North Korea, especially the latter, have gradually succeeded in alienating even their close neighbors. They have been able to flout the disapproval of the “international community” when that community meant only the democratic first world. But as they increasingly embarrass and provoke even their developing-country neighbors, they are starting to find that there are real limits to what they can do. Thai PM Abhisit Vejjajiva’s statement disapproving of Suu Kyi’s detention counted for ten times as much as any statement to the same effect by the US or the UK. And the very fact that ASEM’s agenda has been derailed by these unexpected embarrassments from North Korea and Myanmar is perhaps the most powerful reason to expect a change in attitudes. Asian governments don’t like human rights issues because they mess up the agenda, spoil the atmosphere, and interfere with efforts to keep the economy humming. North Korea and Myanmar, increasingly, are messing up the Asian agenda, spoiling the atmosphere, and interfering with efforts to keep the economy humming. And that’s why bodies like ASEM are gradually becoming more forceful in denouncing their misbehavior.

“No history, no respect for this great little motor lodge” by mattsteinglass
May 24, 2009, 1:28 pm
Filed under: Asia, China, Development, Europe, United States

This is a pretty powerful video interview with a graphic designer named Aaron Draplin. Draplin laments the destruction of a vintage 1960s motel billboard and its replacement with a nondescript computer-generated piece of junk. “This is why America is f***ed,” Draplin says.

I think about this stuff every day — probably every hour — in Hanoi. About two years ago I started to get the feeling that there simply isn’t anywhere in the world apart from Europe and a few scattered sections of the US that does historical preservation right, or thinks it valuable. It’s a European cultural trait, an inheritance of Romanticism. In Vietnam and China, in all likelihood, there’ll be nothing left of the historical country in a couple of decades; most of it will be indistinguishable from a mediocre shopping mall in Singapore, at best.

Weirdly, though, Japan seems to be great at historical preservation. Perhaps because they industrialized earlier and slower, and had more time to think these issues through?

Several ways of interpreting the Thai ASEAN debacle by mattsteinglass
April 12, 2009, 12:55 pm
Filed under: Asia, democracy, Internet

What are the implications for democracy in East Asia? There are several interpretations possible.

1. East Asia is not suited to multiparty democracy. Not enough people understand or adhere to the distinction between political opposition within the rules of the system and all-out civil war.

2. Thailand is different from the rest of East Asia. There is something about Thai political culture that renders it difficult for the country to maintain stable multiparty governance, but this does not necessarily imply that other East Asian countries (Taiwan, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines) are not gradually building stable multiparty democracies, or that multiparty democracy is not the way to go for China, Vietnam, Singapore, etc.

3. Multiparty democracy is an increasingly tenuous proposition throughout the world. Partisanship is increasing, and the legal and cultural norms and structures that have moderated political strife between parties are increasingly overwhelmed by mass-media controversy-creation and by internet-based “ridiculously easy collaboration”. In new democracies that have been formed just at the cusp of this new era, the nascent structures of constitutional democracy cannot hold. But established democracies — in the Americas, Europe, Japan and South Korea — shouldn’t just pat themselves on the back, because they will be facing challenges to their political order from these changes as well.


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