ACCUMULATING PERIPHERALS


CNN and the ethics of Vietnamese dissident interviews by mattsteinglass
June 27, 2010, 3:48 am
Filed under: democracy, Internet, Media, Vietnam

Last week CNN International ran a segment on Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh, the Vietnamese blogger who goes by the name “Me Nam” (Mother Mushroom) and spent 10 days in jail last August after she criticised Chinese bauxite mining in Vietnam. CNN correspondent Andrew Spencer interviewed the affecting Ms Quynh in Ho Chi Minh City. In a followup article on Thursday, CNN’s Pamela Boykoff wrote that before Ms Quynh drove her motorbike down from Nha Trang to Ho Chi Minh City for the interview, the blogger emailed to ask: “Can you sure filming is OK and safe for us?” I’m curious what CNN’s response was.

It should have been “no”. Dozens of dissidents have been sentenced to multi-year jail terms in Vietnam over the past three years, usually for “spreading propaganda against the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.” For many of those convicted, the fact that they gave interviews to foreign news organisations has counted as evidence against them. The US and European governments protest the arrests of democracy activists, but foreign intercession has never prevented the conviction of a Vietnamese dissident, except for a few who had foreign citizenship. (I’m aware of just one case in which a jailed Vietnamese democracy activist with close ties to American institutions was released without a trial due to US pressure.)

As for news organisations like CNN (or the ones I work for), we can do nothing to protect the dissidents we interview, apart from running critical reports on their arrests and convictions. The Vietnamese government largely ignores such press coverage, and foreign media don’t usually pay much attention either. It’s just one small story among many. The fact that Ms Boykoff’s article consistently misspells Ms Quynh’s name doesn’t give much reassurance that CNN is paying focused, long-term attention to the issue of Vietnamese democracy activism. Nor does the televised report’s use of a file-footage establishing shot of the old National Assembly building in Hanoi, which was torn down over a year ago. To a Vietnamese spectator watching the report, the use of that shot says: we don’t follow Vietnam very closely.

What responsibilities do news organisations have in these circumstances? Does Ms Quynh know what she’s getting into by going on CNN to criticise the Vietnamese government? Is she under the misimpression that the publicity will help protect her from arrest? I’ve interviewed a number of people like Ms Quynh, ordinary citizens rather than public figures who have fallen into dissident status without entirely meaning to, and who, having grown up in Vietnam’s cloistered information environment, may be strikingly naive regarding the nature of the Vietnamese state and the ability of foreign governments or organisations to intercede. I’ve also interviewed highly educated, self-conscious dissidents who knew precisely what they were getting themselves into and had a reasonable sense of what strategies were likely to be effective.

I’m happy to report the statements of this latter sort of dissident. Moreover, I’m obliged to. They’re political activists who are making news. My job is to report the news. They’re acting quite deliberately, and they can take care of themselves. With the less sophisticated dissidents, however, things get complicated. I sometimes feel that these are people who have been pushed over an emotional edge by the unfair treatment they’ve received, and are lashing out in a fashion that, in the end, will only hurt them. By running interviews with them, you’re essentially exploiting and to some extent egging on their self-destruction.

I’m not saying CNN shouldn’t have run the interview. It’s their call. But I hope that when Ms Quynh asked whether CNN could ensure they would be “safe”, they told her very clearly that they couldn’t, that what she was doing was not safe at all.



English is a bizarre language by mattsteinglass
June 14, 2010, 10:37 pm
Filed under: Language, US, Vietnam

There exist rules of grammar and usage in English of which native speakers are unaware, and which become apparent only when foreigners violate them. Some of these rules are so arbitrary that you have to pity anyone who has to learn English as a second language, and wonder how English ever became the international lingua franca.

Take this lead sentence from an article in the Vietnam News this morning:

It was time for the Cuu Long (Mekong) Delta to build a flexible, multi-functional irrigation system to better respond to socio-economic development and the impact of climate change, said Deputy Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development Dao Xuan Hoc.

“It was time”? What’s that about? The article is relating a statement by an official in an interview. The author means to say “It is time”. The reason for the use of the past tense is that the author knows the rule that in English, statements by speakers related in the indirect style move back one tense, e.g. “He said she was going to the store,” “Barack Obama said BP was responsible for paying the cleanup costs.” If the statement is already past simple, it moves back to pluperfect: “She said she had studied physics before switching to communications.” And so on.

Compare: “Deputy Minister Dao Xuan Hoc said it was time for the Mekong Delta to build a flexible, multi-functional…” This is correct. But the author doesn’t know that when the cited statement comes before the speaker is identified, the tense doesn’t move back.

On reflection, this rule isn’t entirely arbitrary. The reason for the shift is that the clause “He said” already places us in the past tense, which pushes the dependent clause into the past tense as well. When that “he said” clause doesn’t show up until the end, it sounds bizarre to start in the past tense. Still, this is the kind of rule that’s really hard for a non-native speaker to absorb; it’s a wonder anyone does learn to speak or write English correctly, much less that it’s been selected as the language every international professional has to master. It’s just a very strange kluge of a language.



Why US industry can compete with East Asia by mattsteinglass
June 14, 2010, 3:14 am
Filed under: China, Economics, US, Vietnam

Infrasnargle

I saw this guy Sunday afternoon risking his life while attempting a routine maintenance task in our neighborhood here in Hanoi, and it reminded me of why US industry still remains potentially competitive in many sectors with industry in East Asian emerging markets. Things here are simply much, much less efficient. The country has extremely pressing infrastructure needs to fulfill just to ensure it won’t have continuing blackouts knocking out power to factories, traffic jams that prevent goods from getting to port, sewers that don’t flood streets with excrement every rainy season, and so on. And of course the incredible tangle of wires that is the residential power, phone, and internet system, which I hereby dub the Infrasnargle.

All of these contribute to the fact that Vietnamese workers are vastly less productive than American ones. PPP-adjusted output per worker in the Vietnamese manufacturing sector in 2008 was $8100. For Chinese workers, it was $22,000. For American workers, it just passed $300,000 this year. (I’m not really clear on why we’re using PPP-adjusted figures here; for purposes of comparing competitiveness in exports, the flat dollar value seems more appropriate. But regardless, it’s clear that workers in the US economy can produce vastly more value per hour.)

That said, Vietnam is frantically investing in infrastructure improvements, and if we want to keep American workers competitive, we need to do the same.



Vietnamese breakdancing troupe wins SE Asian championships by mattsteinglass
May 19, 2010, 1:14 am
Filed under: Culture, Vietnam

Big Toe, the greatest breakdancing outfit in Vietnam, won the Southeast Asian regional hip-hop dancing championships in Malaysia on May 15 and will compete in the world championships in South Korea this summer. Here they are making a bunch of Dutch guys look clumsy and slow. But this doesn’t really capture what’s great about Big Toe, which is their social commentary. They do routines that are essentially hip-hop-based enactments of vernacular street culture scenes: in one they become motorbikes and riders jostling in traffic while a frantically popping and locking policeman tries to control them; in another they become spikey-haired gangsta teens trying to pick up a girl in a coffee shop, while avoiding (or perhaps welcoming?) the attentions of a gay waiter. It’s incredibly sharp stuff that might get axed by a Vietnamese government censor, but fortunately with dance there are no words and nothing for a censor to axe. Very, very sharp.

Anyway, here you can appreciate their raw skills if not their auteurship. Also, I have a personal stake here: my daughter had the honor of taking two lessons in hip-hop dancing from Big Toe’s founder and leader, the amazing 36-year-old Viet Thanh, a few years ago before he got too busy with the troupe to teach.

[youtubevid id="ZPvreKGW0tE"]



Vietnam, where Vietnamese coins are no good by mattsteinglass
May 17, 2010, 12:34 pm
Filed under: Economics, Vietnam

My colleague Erica Grieder at The Economist has a nice post up relating Joachim Kalka’s essay on coins in the New Left Review to the possibility that increasing use of debit cards will lead to a more cash-free economy. Strangely, it seems to me that electronic innovations have actually led to more cross-country differences in modes of payment over the past 40 years, rather than less. In the Netherlands, for instance, credit cards are rare; tighter regulation meant they never had the explosion in credit card offerings that hit the US in the ’80s. On the other hand, they were using debit cards much earlier and more ubiquitously than the US.

Meanwhile here in Vietnam, the economy is exceptionally cash-based, considerably more so than in, say, Africa. Here, in fact, they have no checks. Never have. Hence, they’ve never sent bills through the mail: there’s no way to pay them. They send actual human bill collectors around to collect your phone bill, water bill, electric bill, etc. in cash at your door. This is only now beginning to change, with options for electronic bill payment at ATMs or via mobile phone. But while it’s an exceptionally cash-based economy, it’s not coin-based. In fact, for decades, there were no coins at all. It was all paper money. There are still a bunch of antique Chinese coins floating around, with square holes in the middle; they’re used for jewelry and decor. A few years ago, though, the government decided to start issuing coins, because they last longer and are in the long run cheaper to circulate. The result is this:

This is a roll of Vietnamese 5000-dong coins (about $0.25). Here’s the thing: nobody will accept them. I mean, official shops will, and probably chain supermarkets and so forth. But taxi drivers won’t, people in the market won’t, and basically most individual owner-proprietor businesses won’t. Why not? Because they’re afraid they won’t be able to spend them, because nobody will accept them. It’s a completely irrational collective-action problem. The things are issued by the Vietnamese government; they’re clearly unfakeable at any reasonable cost, who would want to fake a $0.25 coin anyway, and if they did, who would care? You could just let it circulate, it wouldn’t do any harm. But for some reason your average Vietnamese person will simply not accept their own government’s coinage as legal tender. They only trust the banknotes. Craziest thing.



iPhone 4G allegedly discovered in Ho Chi Minh City by mattsteinglass
May 14, 2010, 12:51 am
Filed under: China, Technology, Vietnam | Tags: , , ,

I somehow missed this story for almost an entire day: a mobile phone accessory salesman in Ho Chi Minh City says he’s seen a prototype Apple iPhone 4G. He posted a blog entry, including video and pics, on the Vietnamese gadget geek site Tinh Te. He says the device was recognized as an Apple iPhone when he plugged it into his MacBook, and has screenshots to prove it.

It’s basically impossible to keep anything secret in Vietnam. It’s basically impossible to keep anything secret in China. It’s entirely unsurprising that Apple’s industrial operations there are leaking like a sieve. The main difficulty in determining whether or not this 4G iPhone is real or not lies in the fact that Vietnam is currently completely flooded with cheap fake Chinese iPhone knockoffs. My assistant has one. It says it was manufactured in “Clifornia”. So take this all with a grain of salt. But the video on the Tinh Te site looks very convincing.

Here’s a picture of a real and a fake iPhone 3G.

My real iPhone 3G and my assistant's fake Chinese one



My right to detest other people's aesthetic preferences by mattsteinglass
May 11, 2010, 1:20 pm
Filed under: Architecture, Design, Development, Vietnam

Here’s a sight I saw in Ha Giang province last week.

This is how people all over the hilly parts of northern Vietnam are making room to build the cement and brick houses they can suddenly afford: they bring in a bulldozer and wipe out part of a hill. I find it disgusting. I understand that the new landscape reflects the autonomous preferences of a person who, for the first time in their lives, has access to a modicum of wealth and well-being. To me, this is less important than the fact that it is an ugly and irreversible despoilment of the landscape. The long-term erosion problems are a significant but in a sense separate issue.

Here, in contrast, is how the landscape looks when it hasn’t been bulldozed and people are living in wooden, rather than concrete and brick, houses.

What is the moral basis for the claim that I should welcome the transformation of the latter landscape into the former?



I write on Vietnam War fiction in the New York Times by mattsteinglass
April 2, 2010, 2:31 pm
Filed under: Literature, Vietnam

I have a piece in this Sunday’s New York Times Book Review on reading Tim O’Brien in Hanoi. You can read it here.



Some say we're "on the side of tyranny." But at Microsoft… by mattsteinglass
March 31, 2010, 3:46 am
Filed under: China, Human Rights, Internet, Uncategorized, Vietnam

we prefer to call it “advancing free expression through active engagement in over 100 countries, even as we comply with the laws in every country in which we operate.”

Google has done  a lot over the past two weeks to earn my goodwill. Yesterday they did another thing to earn my goodwill.

We believe that malware is a general threat to the Internet, but it is especially harmful when it is used to suppress opinions of dissent…
This particular malware broadly targeted Vietnamese computer users around the world. The malware infected the computers of potentially tens of thousands of users who downloaded Vietnamese keyboard language software and possibly other legitimate software that was altered to infect users. While the malware itself was not especially sophisticated, it has nonetheless been used for damaging purposes. These infected machines have been used both to spy on their owners as well as participate in distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks against blogs containing messages of political dissent. Specifically, these attacks have tried to squelch opposition to bauxite mining efforts in Vietnam, an important and emotionally charged issue in the country.

Here’s McAfee CTO George Kurtz with the details.



Wealth and the annihilation of built culture in East Asia by mattsteinglass
March 29, 2010, 5:03 am
Filed under: Architecture, China, Vietnam

I spent two weeks in Beijing five years ago and loved it. At that point the hutong neighborhoods had already experienced a campaign of progressive annihilation for five or ten years, but there were still large swathes of them remaining, and there was a groundswell of opinion among Chinese architects that they ought to be preserved. Also, the city had put some brilliant young urban planners in high positions for the plans for the 2008 Olympics. It looked like a new generation of better-educated young urban planners and designers with international perspectives might mean a more sophisticated approach to the future of the city that preserved some of its heritage and texture.

That doesn’t seem to have happened. In fact, the Beijing neighborhood I found most appealing, the one hutong area that looked likely to persevere because it had become a hipster, arts and bougie tourist mecca, looks to be slated for one of those dismal Disneyfied “renovation” projects.

Much of the problem here is the lack of widespread appreciation for the genuine feel of the historical in these late-modernizing East Asian societies. Only a few, mainly older, educated members of the elite care about such things. But I think there may be another factor at work besides (lack of) aesthetics. Over the past couple of years, as I’ve watched many of the nicest houses in the Hanoi lakeside village where I live getting demolished for larger, nondescript modern houses and small apartment buildings, I’ve come to feel that much of the problem may be the dramatic income differentials that are appearing in third-world countries successfully leaping into development and modernization. The construction workers who build new houses in our neighborhood come from desperately poor areas of the countryside where nominal per capita income may still be under $300/year. Rent for a house in our neighborhood is averaging at least $2000 per month; a six-floor apartment building would bring in over $5000/month. The disparity between the daily wage of a construction worker and the price his labor can bring (in the form of new rents) is simply too large; it’s sweeping away entire neighborhoods. Much of the classic French colonial architecture of downtown Hanoi has already been annihilated. Because officials know they’re supposed to preserve the aesthetic feel of such areas, they commission multi-story blocks with pseudo-French detailing, huge mansard roofs and window shutters, but the clumsy postmodern imitation only exacerbates the ugliness. But I can’t quite believe that the reason Paris has remained Paris, while Hanoi is turning into some cut-rate Singapore, is solely due to the aesthetic superiority of the French themselves. I think it’s possible that the vast economic gap between what it costs to employ a day-laborer and the worth of an urban building simply never opened quite so wide in Paris in the 19th century, when the country was making its leap to modernity.

Overall, obviously, economic development is a good thing. But I have a feeling that within 25 years there’ll be very little reason to visit China or Vietnam. They’ll look more or less like Tysons Corners, Virginia, but with less nature. And the fast-food restaurants in the strip malls will serve pho. Though I understand you can get a mean bowl of pho in Tysons Corners, too.




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