Wednesday, December 26, 2007


Philip J Cunningham

The news kiosk nearest my Beijing residence is nestled under the staircase of a massive pedestrian bridge that spans a centuries-old thoroughfare now thoroughly jammed with buses and cars bearing down on the dust of what was once the heart of the old city in Marco Polo’s time. The sturdy span not only connects one side of the street to the other, but links two different administrative districts.

The bridge is the only reasonably safe and convenient way to cross the busy fenced road, an elevated bottleneck and chokepoint as it were, engorged with foot traffic morning to night. The bridge, fed by four massive staircases rimmed with inclined ramps for pushing bicycles, is sturdy and wide enough on top to accommodate hundreds of pedestrians at once, inadvertently providing the kind of foot flow coveted by street merchants. As opportunistic merchants stake out space along the railing, the path narrows, the crowd thickens and the bridge is transformed into a floating market, allowing wily salespeople to hawk their wares above the pedestrian-unfriendly roadway below.

The market is a black market, operating without permits or permission, but it brings goods to customers, including impulse items and cute knick-knacks you didn’t know you wanted until you suddenly wanted them. Every now and then there is a crackdown and the merchants are brusquely dispersed by police, but the moveable market persists and for the most part it thrives, if only because enough profit is turned to make the risks tolerable.

Because trade is conducted on the sly, it’s buyer beware; quality control and accountability are largely absent. Counterfeit products abound, some relatively risk-free; say the latest installment of Harry Potter, others outright risky, such as unsanitary foodstuffs. Faulty merchandise is near impossible to refund.

Wedged in between the faux marble railings of the footbridge one beholds a movable tableau of unsanctioned commerce, offering everything from pirated books, including political tracts from Taiwan, Hong Kong and translated bestsellers from abroad, to the latest Hollywood DVDs and banned documentaries critical of communism. Everything from socks, bracelets, mobile phone cases, flowers, incense, road maps, toys, tropical fruit, pet rabbits, freshwater shrimp, to fresh fish flopping in buckets — is offered in plain view but can be made to disappear in a moment’s notice.

When police from one of the two jurisdictions arrive, it often suffices for the fleet-footed merchants to shift to the other side of the bridge, and when law enforcement eventually shows up on the other side, to shift back again. Only during the more serious crackdowns, say during a ritual sweep before a major party congress, are the police actions synchronized to effectively clear the span of all vendors. There are poignant times of the day and times of the year when the bridge is strikingly uncluttered and empty, but it doesn’t stay empty for long.

A similar dynamic in the art of the possible is at work in Beijing’s bustling journalism scene. The days when the iron rule of political loyalty and conformity was the single most important force shaping Chinese journalism are gone, the single unified state narrative as espoused by People’s Daily a thing of the distant past. The old stalwarts such as the People’s Daily, faced with competition from a freewheeling commercial press, is rapidly becoming irrelevant fish-wrap. Like many a bloated, state-run enterprise on the verge of bankruptcy, subsidies alone can’t keep it current or competitive in market terms, it is steadily losing readership share to new, resourceful players.

Chinese journalists navigate this brave, new journalistic landscape by pluck and instinct, as the old red lines bend and break, as the old draconian restrictions are replaced by more inconsistent, laissez-faire environment. Censorship is still strictly imposed on selected taboo topics, Tiananmen or Tibet for example, but increasingly the old restrictions are met with defiance, the perimeter of acceptable expression forever being poked, stretched and widened. A combination of creative subterfuge and sheer resilience on the part of Chinese journalists keeps the press doggedly alive.

China is a big place. Different things can be expressed more or less freely in different places, playing one side of the bridge off the other so to speak. It is often the case that papers in south China can say things that papers in the north couldn’t get away with, and vice versa. This drives a practice known as yidi baodao, or “reporting far from home.” Like the vendors on the footbridge who shift from one end to the other to escape the police, wily journalists write for newspapers in province A to criticize corrupt officials in province B. This explains why Southern Weekend, (nanfang zhoumo), a weekly broadsheet published in the southern city of Guangzhou, is such a hit in a city as far north as Beijing.

Another way journalists here protect themselves is to assign important-sounding titles to relatively unimportant newsroom employees. That way, when official disfavor mandates the firing of an editor, the cut can be made with little cost to the real editorial power, and publishing as usual, if publishing under such conditions can be considered usual, resumes quickly. Sometimes prudence requires nothing more than substituting a pseudonym for a byline, something one Chinese-language newspaper requested I file under a different name for fear that any residual records of my reporting on the Tiananmen Square protests would bring unwanted attention to the paper. At other times prudence requires pulling punches and laying low until a given political storm dissipates and passes.

Despite the persistence of government “cleansing” and meddling, the commercial revolution in the media is impossible to ignore. The news kiosk below the footbridge is crowded; headlines sing and papers dance off the newsstands, promising a seductive read. The display is breathtaking compared to the dull, dusty communal fare distributed to the workplace just a few years ago when the workplace was the primary unit of political control.

Newsstands overflowing with printed matter are getting to be ubiquitous in the big city, but their offerings remain uneven. Today’s kiosks peddle everything from tough investigative reporting on corporate malfeasance to deceptive advertorials, from tabloids offering breathless scandal to fashion rags. Risk-taking for the risqué manages to get even scrupulously apolitical journalists into trouble with the law, as libel suits -another new twist to China’s complicated media scene -add to the hidden costs of the news.

It’s a guerrilla war of sorts, but it is not a war against the government per se, as is sometimes implicit in black and white foreign reports about the struggle for press freedom in China. Rather it’s more an uneasy alliance of earnest reporters and conscientious officials working in tandem for themselves and their country.

Accurate news reporting is useful, indeed essential, to provide an adequate response to epidemics and environmental disasters, and it serves an equally essential role in providing checks on out-of-control corruption and social injustice in a country in the throes of dramatic and fundamental change. Abuse of power, malfeasance, special interests, and a lack of transparency are the frequently the targets of this new Chinese journalism, and when a story is suppressed it is not because it is critical per se but because the criticism cuts too close to certain vested interests and certain power holders protected by the party.

By urgently addressing these issues before things spiral completely out of control, sometimes getting away with it, sometimes not, the Chinese press is both partner and adversary to the government by shining light in dark places. Properly understood, journalism is a supremely patriotic undertaking, helping society to correct itself, to address errors and grievances before things tumble out of control.

Be that as it may, doing real journalism in China remains a thankless job for the most part, low pay, high risk. Pursuing the truth conscientiously is not a career for the faint of heart, it has been in the past, and still is to some extent, a fast track to unemployment, prison or exile, in the intrepid tradition of Liu Binyan, Dai Qing, Li Datong and other spirited journalists who dared to speak truth to power.

But such lone courageous individuals are rare. Most reporting is couched in the realm of the possible, though not without integrity and not without risk. Even taking into account a certain amount of compromise, a watchdog press can serve as a curb on societal excess. Caijing, a leading business publication edited by Hu Shuli, has run several eye-opening investigative reports on real estate corruption in Beijing. The money may be lost forever, the injustice stands uncorrected, but every bicyclist and taxi driver in Beijing seems to know about it and real estate developers, who are corrupting the press with their own hidden agendas backed by lavish advertising, are subject to increased ridicule and suspicion.

Chinese journalists who came of age in the Deng Xiaoping era have been swept up as much by the turbo-capitalism Deng unleashed as a corrective to communistic excess as the pithy political injunctions he is remembered by. To navigate the uncertain terrain of this fluid, translucent world one must be opportunistic and observant, effectively “groping for stones as one crosses the river.”

Old draconian restrictions are lifted only to be replaced by extremely complicated and tricky new rules that effectively “democratize” the burden of censorship by making every editor, every writer, even bloggers, guardians of their own pen.

While residual heavy-handed censorship is disdained for its blatant clumsiness, there are ways around it with word of mouth and the Internet, but the new, insidious pressures to censor the net pose new fresh challenges. To some extent this can be met with creative subterfuge; irony, sarcasm, symbolic expression and other zigzag forms of subversive speech can withstand the befuddled gaze of the straight-laced censor. More corrosive of the net’s ability to provide reliable information is the epidemic of hate speech, ad hominen attacks and misinformation, polluting the well of public knowledge.

China is awash in a swirling sea of information, more than ever in its history, thanks to the Internet, cell phones, handy-cams, blogs, satellite television and newspapers. Increasingly you can find what you are looking for if you know where to look, but you must first master the art of reading critically, oftentimes between the lines.




If you are a TV host named Yang Rui there are days when it seems like the whole world is against you. American critics dismiss you as a mouthpiece for China; Chinese officials carp about your “intrusive questions”, saying you’re too aggressive, too “Western.” A diplomat from a Muslim country is pressuring the Foreign Ministry to have you fired for overly critical remarks, and there were pointed complaints from Africa, where the program is widely broadcast, when you compared the situation in Sudan to Rwanda and Timor. Israelis and Arabs, Indians and Pakistanis, Iraqis and Turks each accuse you of favoring their rivals. Doing your job well means someone, somewhere will not be pleased.

You pull yourself out of bed before dawn, gulp down a cup of milk, and then select a suit, shirt and tie. You have a lengthy live broadcast to anchor starting nine AM. You flick on the TV to review last night’s show as it is rebroadcast, and then boot up the computer to see how the world's changed overnight.

If it weren’t for the day’s hectic schedule, you might like to spend the morning in the book-lined study listening to classical music. But North Korea is in the news, the Six-Party talks, a volatile discussion concerning denuclearization of the Korean peninsula are the topic of today’s special show. In haste, you take the elevator down to the cavernous basement garage of the modern apartment block you live in, key up your car and commence your drive to work. Rush hour is in full force. With your mind on global affairs, you negotiate the bicycle clogged highways and by-ways of West Beijing, mindful of over-loaded trucks, errant cyclists and the odd donkey-cart.

You pause at the entrance gate to CCTV’s headquarters, there are no disgruntled rural petitioners assembled here this morning, but such is the faith in TV that many come here as a last resort. You pause long enough for the uniformed guard to give you a crisp, perfunctory salute, then seek a place to park, securing your favorite parking space on a neglected piece of blacktop behind the East Gate guardhouse. You walk a short distance to the main entrance where you are brusquely waved in by a muscular man in a khaki uniform, then take the elevator up to your office on the nineteenth floor. You sift through memos, lead-ins and research prepared by your staff, then whiz through the Western wires starting with Reuters, scanning the NYT,, and the New York Times online.

What an enviable information flow, what a beautiful world the Internet is for the reader of English!

You gaze out the window at the postcard-perfect vista of Yu Yuantan, imperial Qing garden turned people’s park, now illuminated in the oblique light of the rising sun. To the east, the articulated rooftops of Soviet style towers and grandiose bank buildings line the city’s main thoroughfare. Beyond the chimney-shaped television tower capped with a revolving observation deck, a golden mist hangs over the Fragrant Hills.

Today's show, due to go on live in half an hour, has three guests; the former Japanese Ambassador to Russia, a local Arms Control expert from the Academy of Social Sciences and an American journalist. You're a little nervous about the ambassador because recent tensions between Tokyo and Beijing have put things on edge. On the one hand you want to ask tough questions, it’s your practice, it’s your pride, it’s what you do to create a circumscribed, propaganda-free zone; on the other hand you have to keep things diplomatic. A major issue of war and peace --will North Korea go nuclear, inviting attack from the US and Japan, or will it be persuaded to give up its atomic activities?

While on any given day it is difficult to determine who or how many of the estimated ten million potential satellite viewers in China and abroad are tuning in to the show that you script with your own hand and enliven with your off-the-cuff comments, one thing you can be sure of; Dialogue is monitored daily by Beijing-based diplomats, the Foreign Ministry and various state security agencies.

You check your appearance in the mirror as you knot your tie and take the elevator back downstairs, ambling down the long corridors of CCTV’s aging modernist structure, where discarded lunch boxes and drink bottles litter long, curving hallways and some of the floorboards creak. Although the recently renovated studio for live broadcasts sparkles, building repairs are made only reluctantly now that the all available funds are being poured into the gargantuan new CCTV tower designed by the flashy Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas.

You briskly stride the length of the second floor to get to the English language newsroom where bilingual Chinese staffers and foreign experts assemble and polish news scripts for the day’s bulletins, mostly international news, sometimes with a China angle. Wall-mounted TV screens simultaneously display half a dozen news programs, including BBC, banned from most Chinese cable providers in China, but an indispensable part of your daily fare as a newsman.

You are shepherded to the make-up room for a quick hair check and a touch of color and powder. Then you are quietly ushered into the oval-shaped live studio next door, silently slipping into your seat and putting in your earphone as another live news update winds up on the other side of the room. Your guests arrive, after handshakes you seat them according to protocol, the Chinese arms expert sitting closest to you, the Japanese ambassador in the middle and the American journalist at the end of the table.

The lights come on, and all conversations cease. An illuminated clock counts down silently. "Hello this is Yang Rui, and welcome to Dialogue..."

I’m sitting with Yang Rui at a wooden table in a trendy Tex-Mex restaurant in the diplomatic district. Though relaxed and smiling, the conversation is never less than serious, even as we order lunch. He tells me how much he enjoys doing live shows, and it’s not just the extra adrenaline and excitement. With live TV, there is no editing, no second-guessing the comments made by hosts or guests, you just have to go with what happens.

Taped interviews, on the other hand, are vexing because they invite endless edits and outside meddling. He talks about how the Foreign Ministry once expressed concerns about the pointed questions he asked Zimbabwe strongman Robert Mugabe, then visiting Beijing as a state guest. Despite the pressures of protocol, Yang Rui had insisted on asking the “old friend of China” about controversial shantytown demolitions, even though he was pretty sure it would be censored out. He was criticized by an aide to Mugabe at the time, so it was to gratifying to see that the interview aired pretty much intact, as best he remembered it.

He found US government guests could be equally prickly about content and protocol. During an interview with US Labor Secretary Elaine Chao, her aides, functioning as US minders, blocked the camera and demanded that the line of questioning be halted because it deviated from a pre-arranged script. Similarly, when Alberto Gonzalez, as US Attorney General, sat for an interview at the US Embassy in Beijing, Yang Rui reported being bullied by US minders who tried to control every aspect of the interview, from questions to seating arrangements and placement of national flags.

And of course there are political sensitivities much closer to home. Yang Rui explains, with a note of exasperation, that Chinese television is at risk of going from political propaganda to commercial propaganda, in effect making the move from mouthpiece to mouthwash.

As the long hand of the state recedes, it yields not so much to serious journalism, such as he would like to see, but bottom-line driven commercial product. He quotes a former CCTV colleague, the Columbia-educated television hostess and media entrepreneur Yang Lan who complained to him about the low-brow pressures of independent television production, nostalgically recalling the “freedom” she enjoyed of being able to talk about serious issues on state-run CCTV.

“China wants to be seen as a serious, responsible player,” explains Yang Rui, “and that requires producing balanced news and winning the trust of the viewer.”

The American invasion of Iraq was a big turning point for CCTV, Yang Rui continues. “That’s when we really started doing journalism. We ran live reports, we quoted foreign sources, we had PLA generals talking military strategy. The head of the news division was so nervous, expecting at any moment to be criticized by the national leadership.” The complaint never came. “They liked it; it was the Americans who complained,” he adds with a grin.

Yang Rui says self-censorship is much more insidious than formal controls; a willingness to take risks should be part of the news sub-culture at a TV station. During orientation, new recruits are admonished; “be willing to be casualties.”

The challenge is to do your job well, he adds, “even if it means losing your job.” During the weekly two-hour meeting he chairs for the youthful, largely female staff of seven producers and a number of assistants, Yang Rui challenges the innate caution and “one-day, one-dollar” attitude of today’s youth. “I see journalism as a noble cause, a mission; too many others see it just as a job.”

I meet Yang many times again in and out of the studio. An American professor in Japan, I am frequently asked to comment on Sino-Japan relations, both in the studio and by telephone hook-up. We meet later at a trendy café in the university district where he is recognized by several students who watch his program to improve their English.

What are some of the memorable interviews has he dealt with? “Ah, Margaret Thatcher!” he says, conjuring up a smile. “What a skilled actress! She was unshakeable.” Michael Deaver, former Reagan aide, was challenging in a different way, “He didn’t answer any of my questions!” He mentions that several Chinese officials similarly proved difficult subjects, they didn’t like being interrupted or asked follow-up questions, tending to treat journalist as scribe. On the other hand, he thoroughly enjoyed repeated interviews with Jimmy Carter, “an honest and smart man” and Chris Patten, “he is tough, his words so strong, he has the instincts of a wolf, but I enjoy talking to him.”

Although Yang Rui still has days when doing what a journalist is supposed to due puts him under immense pressure, his supervisors can’t help but notice that Yang Rui is good at keeping cool. He has also cultivated a long line of diplomats, scholars and statesmen willing to sit in the hot seat as a guest on his show. Now with the Olympics coming up, he will be busier and more in demand than ever.

“Sometimes I think it’s amazing I still have my job,” he confesses over coffee. “What a job!”


Thursday, December 6, 2007


Inside Chinese state TV: When dialogue is hard talk


BEIJING Earlier this year I was about to sit down for a live TV interview for the public affairs program Dialogue at CCTV’s main studio in Beijing when a work team from former employer in Tokyo suddenly showed up.

An NHK news crew from Japan was on hand, roaming the premises of CCTV to “study” the impact and apparent success of CCTV's Dialogue. The visiting camera crew followed Dialogue host Yang Rui around the newsroom and into the studio as he and I sat down to discuss nuclear proliferation with China’s distinguished Persian-speaking former envoy to Iran, Ambassador Hua Liming. As the NHK crew filmed CCTV filming us, we were joined on air by a Xinhua correspondent on the ground in Teheran, analyzing US moves in the region

Things had suddenly come full circle for me. I first got involved with Chinese state television indirectly while working for NHK in Tokyo in 1991 as the producer of China Now, a news-magazine co-production designed to educate CCTV in the art of TV, at least as practiced in Japan at that time. The idea was that CCTV would provide raw footage to Tokyo where it would be combined with NHK footage, re-edited, narrated and transformed into “real” TV, though the results were decidedly mixed.

I had been hired by NHK on the strength of my China freelance reporting during the 1989 Tiananmen crisis and assumed, perhaps mistakenly, that they had wanted a journalist. I was being offered opportunity to helm a politically sensitive Sino-Japanese co-production, but there were mountains of political correctness to take into account.

As I subsequently wrote in numerous memos to NHK brass, including a note to the chairman, even superb production values can’t save a basically flawed product. I made specific reference to the nationalistic bias of certain news reports on Japanese radio and TV, where I freelanced, and on China Now, where I was a staff producer. If you add propaganda to news you still get propaganda.

Even when CCTV provided raw footage that was truly moving or newsworthy, the pressure to produce something that neither side would take strong exception to put me in a bind. The few times China Now managed to make a pointed edit or powerful turn of phrase, complaints from Beijing and Tokyo were sure to follow, each side conveniently blaming the “gaijin” to preserve the tenor of Sino-Japanese amity. My unique opportunity was mission impossible, the news magazine had to be unnewsworthy to succeed.

Even when China Now was not as anodyne as its sponsors intended, both sides had something to gain. Chinese TV was still in its infancy compared to Japan’s sophisticated industry, there was much to learn, at least in production terms, and Tokyo saw it as means to foster goodwill in Beijing while obtaining for NHK increased access to China in terms of footage old and new, obtaining exclusive rights to certain coveted archival materials while winning permission to film in sensitive border areas.
I left China Now, turning down a salary increase and new contract, when I discovered it was being used as a conduit to move cash payments and Japanese researchers unrelated to my show into China.

A decade later, I found myself again at the gates of CCTV, this time at the Beijing headquarters offering a journalism seminar under the auspices of America’s Knight Foundation. During a talk attended by the production staff of Dialogue, I urged going live and presenting diverse viewpoints to boost the program’s journalistic merit and credibility. A long silence was followed by an unexpected invitation. "When would you like to be on?”

Soon after I was under the lights talking about everything from Mao, Taiwan, human rights, NGO’s, espousing views on a wide array of topics, the only coherent thread being my own idiosyncratic take on things, one individual’s tentative exercise of press freedom in a sensitive environment. That many of my views might be described as leftist was initially reassuring though later disconcerting to my hosts, because there is little that is leftist about China today, even though Chinese like to think of themselves as being somehow more progressive than Americans.

China benefits greatly from being slightly different from what foreigners think it is, either because it is changing so rapidly that old assumptions no longer hold, or because it is so good at throwing up illusions that foreigners find engaging. Expecting tight controls when I first got to CCTV I found the range of speech on CCTV’s premier talk show to be refreshingly open. I was never told what to say or what not to say with one exception, and that was on one of the early live shows.

Minutes before the studio lights went one and the cameras started to roll, I was treated to one of those inimitable and mildly intimidating Chinese compliments which can be read in multiple ways, redolent of inclusion and exclusion, encouragement and enforcement.

“You are the first foreigner invited to talk on Chinese TV about Chairman Mao in a live, unedited broadcast.”

As I took my place facing the immaculately groomed host at the glass table in the main studio, after an admonition to turn off my cell phone and a brief brush over at make-up, I sat in silence trying to gauge the import of the veiled warning implicit in the “first foreigner” compliment. Being bestowed with the status of “first” this or that is not without hidden baggage. It is not so much a tip of the hat to assimilation as a reflection of how cunning and parochial China can be even in this global era.

I thought of Sidney Rittenberg, an American communist resident in China since the 1940's who had risen to great heights at China Radio before finding himself imprisoned in the chaos of the Cultural Revolution. He had achieved notoriety as a “first foreigner” in many categories real and contrived, but what really got him in trouble were his outspoken broadcasts on radio.

Being asked to talk about a perennially sensitive topic was as much a bind as a breakthrough in part because it implied a kind of trust. Was I being trusted to talk freely or did being first imply something else? My worst fears were driven home just minutes before show opened when the host whispered to me. "Please don't say anything about Mao's women. This is about his political legacy."

Blame it on the studio lights, but I was sweating by the time the countdown to the live broadcast began.

Host Yang Rui opened the program with a short introduction about Mao’s life, spoken in his naturally authoritative, stentorian voice. His English is astonishingly good, so it must have been my nervousness that caused me to mishear the first question.

“Hello, this is Yang Rui, welcome to Dialogue…”What do you think about Mao’s women?”
"Mao's women?"
“Mao’s women?”
I paused. Why was he putting me on the spot with such a provocative opening? Was it a trick question? A loyalty test?
"Yes. In the Yangtse River."
"Oh, you mean Mao swimmin'? You mean, like, Mao’s symbolic swim in the river, like in the Yangtse at the start of the Cultural Revolution?"
It was an awkward start to doing live political commentary on China’s state TV, but the cameras kept rolling and Dialogue now goes live as a matter of course.

What I like about CCTV is that they are willing to try new things, pushing boundaries both technical and political. Fully cognizant of the limits and dangers of state TV, which is to say cushioned by a bureaucracy that tolerates mistakes that would be intolerable in the West or Japan (especially sloppy production values) the staff is ever-vulnerable to being fired for crossing, inadvertently or intentionally, ever-shifting political lines.

Strangely enough, that creates a kind of laissez-faire attitude. As a result of production values that are part spit and polish, part spit and scotch tape, you have an operation that does not lend itself to be taken terribly seriously, with the serendipitous result that you see weird and wonderful glimpses of reality that are hard to find elsewhere. Everyone makes mistakes, many Chinese speakers mispronounce, every show could be the last show and much of it is compelling and real.

Much of the success of Dialogue can be traced to the hard work, political perceptiveness and improvisational skills of host Yang Rui, whose stentorian voice and attention to detail makes him a television natural. Last year he was in the midst of doing a show on candidates for man of the year in China, drawing from a list of political celebrities feted by the mainland media.

"How about coal miners?" I said, frustrated by the confining narrative frame, deliberately going off topic.
"Coal miners. We sit here, under these lights, all this electricity, we all enjoy the benefits of the power, and they are dying, 30 or more a week. Coal miners should be the men of the year."

And to Yang Rui’s credit, he threw away the script and we talked about the plight of coal-miners instead of the rich and famous.

The fact that Dialogue is English language TV means much of what is said on air goes in one ear and out the other of China’s more xenophobic censors, mostly monolingual old-time ideologues who can’t very well vet the program unless it is taped and translated. Given the ephemerality of the live format, old time ideologues are unlikely to tune in, let alone pick up on tongue-in-cheek humor and ironic nuances.

Another reason why Dialogue can provide relatively free discussion space in a relatively unfree political environment is due to its judicious and diplomatic selection of discussion topics; they can’t control how a “typical freewheeling American,” as they have pegged me, will answer any given question posed on live TV but they pick and choose the questions. I was pointedly uninvited from a show during Hu Jintao’s visit to the US for fear I would make waves by being too critical of the Bush administration. Thus it gave me satisfaction to be invited on during Bush’s visit to China, and again after his State of the Union speech last January. I didn’t pull any punches, causing an exasperated producer to express the wish that I tone down my criticism of Bush since “America is important to China.”

To be fair, it is part of Dialogue’s brief to cover international affairs with diplomatic sensitivity and aplomb; the views expressed by the host and Chinese government guests are not necessarily the voice of China but may easily be perceived as such. Yet many government-linked speakers are a delight to be on with, the cautious but erudite Iran specialist Ambassador Hua Liming comes to mind, while other guests, usually the ones who demand all the questions in advance, are more interested in monologue than dialogue.

Early on I objected to the inquisitional tone the program sometimes assumed, and refused to answer the oft-asked, “We Chinese, you Americans” type of clichéd questions typical of co-host Tian Wei. As a guest on the show, I felt I brought credit neither to CCTV nor myself unless we avoided ethnic stereotypes and cultivated an atmosphere that expected and accepted a wide range of views

But for every misstep and clunky moment, there have been wonderful moments when a true conversation takes flight, steering clear of cliché, party line and national stereotypes. While I have been vocally critical of Tokyo’s foreign policy on the show, I have introduced a number of Japanese guests to Dialogue. Yang Rui, like most Chinese I know, has a short fuse on the topic of Japanese revisionism; his family suffered terribly during Japan’s war of invasion. Yet I urged him, when he was playing the role of host, not to say things like “that Koizumi guy” but to remain as neutral as possible for the sake of balance and maintaining an atmosphere conducive to discussion. Thus I was pleased to meet Yang Rui in Kyoto last month when he visited Japan as the guest of one of the Japanese professors who is now a regular commentator on the show.

In my eyes, CCTV first started to look like a real news station during the US invasion and occupation of Iraq, at least in terms of its Mideast coverage. It’s vaguely demeaning, if not insulting to both sides to say America has gotten so bad as to make China look good, but that dynamic cannot be completely discounted. American TV is more free, but not free of nationalism. Chinese TV is blatantly nationalistic at times, but China is at peace with the world and studiously keeping a low profile, if only for long-term strategic reasons, in this golden age of trade.

In the weeks leading up to the war in Iraq, CCTV gave a handful of Americans like myself a chance to say things that prime-time American TV, still in the US-flag-on-the-lapel stage, was not ready to hear. I paraphrased Churchill, calling Bush’s plan to attack Iraq the “wrong war for the wrong reasons at the wrong time” and was invited back to do a show after the war commenced, in which I expressed my view that France and Germany were true friends of America because they didn’t blindly follow Bush like Blair did. More recently I have found occasion to speak out against possible US intervention in Iran, while urging China to play a more constructive role. As for the likelihood of a US attack, I said if someone wants a fight they can usually find a fight. It would take something as little as a leaf from an Iranian tree blowing over the border to get tensions up.

Chinese TV has also given me the opportunity to express very personal opinions; when face to face with a Chinese general I used the obscure and somewhat baffling language of American counterculture and pacifism to make my point. When asked about tensions in the Taiwan Straits, I criticized the missiles on both sides, when asked Hiroshima, I said no city ever deserves such a fate, when the topic was nuclear proliferation, I talked of Dr. Strangelove. Pacifism and cultural irony are not part of the Communist Party’s vocabulary and it allows me to stake out a little space of my own in an intimidating environment.

Dialogue’s strength as the credibility anchor for CCTV 9 rests largely on the grit and integrity of its anchor, his preparation for each show and his hard-talking approach.

But domestic topics remain touchy and Chinese guests remain nervous about talking openly, partly out of habit, partly because they have a nose for political winds undetected by foreign guests. And if that isn’t enough to worry about, they have to manage fine distinctions in English, a language as different as can be imagined from what they are accustomed to.

When I wrote about communist-party-newspaper-editor-turned–communist-party-critic Li Datong, a CCTV producer pulled me aside, asking me if I wrote the article. I said I did, adding that I found Li Datong to be a great journalist. He smiled, saying he thought so too. On several subsequent occasions, I quietly suggested a show on the Tiananmen demonstrations, which I had covered as a freelancer working for ABC and BBC in 1989, but judging from the gap-jawed reaction, it won’t happen any time soon.

Despite the party-enforced intransigence on Tiananmen, a stain that won't go away, I have seen dozens of other television taboos fall by the wayside, but CCTV, like a dragon shedding scales, is still recognizably a dragon. Dialogue is a bit like BBC’s Hard Talk with Chinese characteristics, which makes it frustrating at times, but along with unevenly observed and sometimes clumsy efforts to promote a Beijing view, there exists an unexpected degree of freedom to talk in-depth and in detail about thorny political issues such as North Korea, Sino-Japanese historical disputes, Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, India, atomic proliferation, substantive topics that more commercially-driven channels would find difficult.

The atmosphere at CCTV News is laid-back, almost somnambulant at times, and not the sort of nail-biting news operation I’ve seen in other world capitals. Just as China is a nation full of first time drivers, TV talk shows are full of people making their first time appearance on TV. Perhaps out of necessity, CCTV is a patient teacher, giving the newcomer time to adjust, and tolerant of little technical mistakes that might provoke a summary firing elsewhere.

China’s English-language TV channel also gives a fair number of foreigners the chance to appear on TV, some of them neophytes, others quite skilled on camera, in roles ranging from weather caster to cultural tutor, from news commentator to news anchor.

The station’s high hopes for international programming not only remind me of NHK during its internationalist heyday a decade or so earlier, CCTV is actually more international in the sense that there is less of a glass ceiling. At CCTV people of diverse racial backgrounds are put in front the camera in contrast to NHK’s overtly Japan-first attitude, which consistently relegates non-Japanese to invisible roles.

Even CCTV’s English news, which relies on foreign wires and video for much of its content, though guided by government policy, has seen it fit to hire dozens of foreigners for narration and on-camera news-reading, most notably Edwin Maher, a former weather caster from Australia. During my time at NHK foreigners were put on air too, but only if they looked passably Japanese, that is to say “Asian in appearance” as specified in the Japan Times classified ads. The foreign anchors were Japanese-Americans from Hawaii.

In the decade since I was hired by NHK to help CCTV, the latter has indeed learned much about “real” television news, while NHK, if anything, has been locked into a retrograde pattern. The controversial “ethnic cleansing” of foreign employees at NHK after a change in station leadership and more recently political pressures from right-wing politicians such as Abe Shinzo, who instructed NHK to cut stories on things like wartime comfort women while jacking up the volume on reports with an anti-communist slant, has taken a visible toll on the product and morale at Japan’s number one broadcaster.

If NHK reeks of bureaucratic meddling and sometimes outright historical revisionism, CCTV does too, but there is a countervailing momentum that is forward-looking, bristling with change and hopes for more change. Symbolically, the international transformation of CCTV will be complete in the next year or so when its current headquarters, a dull modernist monolith typical of the late communist style is replaced by a provocatively costly pretzel-shaped building designed by Dutch architect Rem Koolhaus.

But that’s just how things look on the outside; the facelift could augur a period of change or disguise the fact that very little is changing. For CCTV building news credibility is a taller order than building a new skyscraper. If and when CCTV rises to the challenge of good journalism and viewer trust, it will not be on account of its brassy new building but tough, dediciated individuals such as Yang Rui who work tirelessly to improve the news in every little way they can.

On the day when NHK's inquiring television crew paid a surprise visit to CCTV to measure their rival’s progress in international broadcasting, and happened to catch me in the hot seat, we had a chance to chat briefly after the show. I was impressed with the humility of the Japanese producer who said that he wanted to take a close look at the success of CCTV’s Dialogue since “NHK is under-performing in its international programming.”

The innovations of CCTV, once a student of NHK, are now of compelling interest to the teacher. Given recent political tensions, it is reassuring to see that Japan and China are continuing to exchange ideas and learn from one another.

(The author has worked in television and film in China and Japan since 1986)

Philip J. Cunningham

Thursday, October 18, 2007


BANGKOK POST Wednesday October 17, 2007


LDP adapts to heal wounds of July

Japan's ruling Liberal Democratic Party is trying to right itself by moving away from the right


Mukade, as the centipede is known in Japan, are ubiquitous in the lushest parts of the verdant archipelago. The hard-shelled arthropod can inflict a painful sting on anything that gets too close to its pincers, especially when cornered. But even after capture, the mukade is notoriously hard to vanquish. Merely stepping on it will not do the job. You need a serious pair of scissors. Only when ripped asunder does the beast cease to resist.

The centipede provides a model of adaptation and persistence that anticipates, by several million years at least, samurai notions of hard-shelled toughness and the ruthless guarding of turf.

During the rainy season this year, the long-enduring Liberal Democratic Party of Japan came very close to being cut to pieces after a devastating defeat in the polls, followed by the humiliating retreat of a hard-line prime minister who rolled himself up into a protective ball and hid from public view when the going got tough.

Shinzo Abe, the cosseted scion of a political dynasty groomed for prominence from birth; Shinzo Abe, the champion of right-wing invective and the master of subtly cruel innuendo, complained at the time of his self-inflicted demise that politics was tougher than he thought.

In contrast to the emotional highs and lows of Mr Abe's short tenure, the newly installed Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda is a competent, low-key politician who is really hard to dislike. If you told him he didn't have any personality he would probably agree with you; it is precisely this genial agreeableness that makes him useful as a party unifier after the polemics of Mr Abe's rule. The ultimate team player, though in every way Mr Abe's senior, Mr Fukuda had shrewdly withdrawn from running against Mr Abe last year both for the sake of party unity and as a gesture toward a multi-generational family friendship.

Taro Aso, the runner-up to Mr Fukuda in the inner party race, is, in contrast, naturally combative, controversial and careless in speech; not at all what the LDP needs to heal itself at this juncture.

I watched Mr Fukuda and Mr Aso debate at the height of their campaign during an unexpectedly generous whistle-stop at the Foreign Correspondent's Club in Tokyo, where the questions were pointed and eligible voters few. What was most striking, aside from two very different conversational styles _ Mr Aso the raspy, straight-talking populist versus Mr Fukuda, the mild-manner party bureaucrat whose voice barely broke the level of a whisper _ was that they held confusingly similar views on most topics.

But on closer examination there was method to that maddening lack of clarity.

With the possible exception of the Yasukuni issue _ where Mr Fukuda's upfront statement about refusing to visit represents a clean break from the deliberately provocative stance of Junichiro Koizumi and the deliberately ambiguous but essentially unapologetic stance of Mr Aso, which echoes that of Mr Abe _ the two men could have been peas in a pod. And in a real way they are, as veterans of the same old party.

Mr Aso's run for prime minister never really threatened Mr Fukuda's chance of getting the nod but created sufficient political spectacle and democratic spirit to take the wind out of the sails of the LDP's real opponent, Democratic Party leader Ichiro Ozawa, who had held the initiative and political high ground for much of the summer, but failed to foil Mr Fukuda's political jujitsu.

It's no exaggeration to say that the LDP heaved a heavy sigh of relief when Mr Fukuda took over the helm from the mysteriously absent and weirdly unassertive Mr Abe who had reportedly thrown in the towel due to intestinal distress.
One can only imagine the political bickering and crafty manoeuvring in smoky rooms behind the scenes at which the wounded, staggering LDP found the gumption to suddenly re-invent itself.

Like any well-designed bureaucracy, the LDP owes its existence to individuals, but it also has a will to survive that extends beyond any particular individual member. When Mr Ozawa's insurgent drive showed itself to be dangerously out of touch with what people were really thinking, the party did what it had to do, cutting its losses and changing tack.

So Mr Abe's name is mud, despite the political blue blood that flows in his veins. And Mr Abe's like-thinking associate Mr Aso, who by virtue of factional clout and service to the party might otherwise have been the party's first choice for the top job, had to reconcile himself to the fact that it was in the LDP's best interest that he lose.

And in Japan's best interest too. There was palpable relief across the media when Mr Fukuda won. For whatever Mr Fukuda lacks in charisma, it is compensated by the perception that he is wise and willing to compromise. For whatever militant ideology he lacks, it is compensated by his political skills for getting things done more or less as they always have been done.
From newspaper coverage to Sunday talk shows on TV, one could detect visible optimism that with the change of guard, Japan could now put World War Two back in the past where it belongs, and address more pressing social problems of the present and near future.

Mr Koizumi got away with politically provocative but essentially naive comments about international relations because he had the dramatic flair to wow an audience.

In contrast, the dour Mr Abe brought uncertainty to everything he touched. He frittered away valuable political capital inherited from Mr Koizumi by re-imagining World War Two all over again and losing all over again. Whether it be in regard to the criminality of war criminals, or the degree to which comfort women ''comforted'' voluntarily or the mandated textbook changes including deletions that threatened to take the history of Okinawa out of the hands of those hurt most by that sorry chapter of Japan's history, Mr Abe was tone-deaf and ideologically rigid to a fault.

Japanese democracy, however imperfect and indirectly expressed, made a big breakthrough with the nationwide rejection of the ruling LDP in the Upper House elections in July. The July upset conveyed a message as clear as the last mid-term elections in the US; people are sick and tired of war talk and want politicians to focus on social issues, not warfare, real and imagined. On both sides of the Pacific, the people have said no to grandiose top-down ideologies that treat the common man as cannon fodder for ill-conceived causes.

The people of Japan are inheritors of a twin tradition, as proponents of a terrible war and as victims of a terrible war. Japan's peace movement, born in the ashes of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, is powerful and not easily deterred. They have nurtured a war-renouncing constitution and citizen peace tradition almost unique in the world, and they have played a key role keeping Japan peaceful and at peace for six decades.

The pacifists have spoken quietly and firmly and the message is simple: keep the peace.

Mr Fukuda may consort with right-wingers and may depend on some of them for political capital, but he is hypoallergenic in comparison to the dirty politicians who propagate viruses of hate and nationalistic divisiveness.

If Mr Fukuda is to achieve anything at all, he must keep the rightists at bay, otherwise, the Japanese body politic will suffer yet another allergic reaction to the pathogens of revisionism in his party.

Given the setbacks and debacles of Mr Abe's singularly clumsy year of rule, the Mikado's mukade has taken a necessary corrective to prevent it from veering further off course.

A centipede can lose a few feet and still feed itself, navigating the forest floor as before. To the consternation of Mr Ozawa and other LDP foes, ready and waiting with scissors in hand to pounce on a dazed and disoriented political machine, the writhing creature has some life in it yet.

The multi-footed and functionally segmented LDP political machine is in the process of righting itself by moving away from the right. It is crawling its way out of danger, one step at a time, doing what it was designed to do and still does best, which is to say, surviving, marching forward, despite daunting odds.

Philip J Cunningham is a freelance writer and political commentator

Thursday, July 19, 2007


published in the JAPAN TIMES Monday, July 2, 2007

Erasing history with a name change?


A U.S. congressional panel's passage of a resolution last week calling on Japan to acknowledge and apologize for the systemic abuse of Asian women coerced to offer "comfort" to millions of Japanese soldiers during World War II is a positive development not only for U.S.-Japan relations, but for Japan itself. The conservative leadership of the ruling party that has had Japan in its grips for half a century makes Japan incapable of fully reforming itself from within.

U.S. Congressman Mike Honda's resolution, a friendly nudge from a close ally, imploring Japan to recognize past mistakes so that it may move on, is a timely corrective that may help stem the revisionist tide that is sweeping Japan, not only at the level of rightwing sound-trucks and noisemakers, but deep in the austere halls of the government itself.

In recent weeks Japanese government officials have found themselves on the wrong side of history, awkwardly defending historic abuses such as forced labor, forced prostitution, forced suicides in Okinawa, outright massacres in Nanjing and other occupied cities; and going as far as to hint that the attack on Pearl Harbor was a strategic necessity and that the Tokyo war crimes tribunal was vindictive victor's justice.

Given the rising drum beat of revisionism, it was inevitable that fault would be found with Hollywood's latest offering on Japan's lost war, but the meticulous research and quality production values behind Clint Eastwood's magisterial twin films about Iwojima doesn't make for an easy target.

Because the twin films were well-received in both America and Japan, filmed partly on location with Japanese cooperation that included personal consultation with nationalist firebrand Shintaro Ishihara, one might think that the U.S. and Japan had come to terms on at least one historical issue, the epic battle for Iwojima. But the immense good will accrued by this thoughtful film project was unexpectedly upended with a surprise announcement from Japanese officialdom in late June.

In what may be considered a case study of the insidious way history can be altered or erased, Iwojima is not to be called Iwojima anymore, but rather Iwoto.

The Japan Geographical Survey Institute in concert with Japan's Coast Guard — claiming to represent the sentiments of people who lived on the strategic rock before being displaced by Japan's military seven decades ago — changed the name of the small island with a big history, reportedly in reaction to the success of the film. Whatever the merits of the extremely narrow linguistic claim behind the name change, the effect of saying Iwojima is a misnomer is to subtly invalidate all extant American narratives on the topic, past and present. The impressive attempt at historic verisimilitude on the part of director Clint Eastwood is thus a victim of its own success, energizing revisionists to take action when it became apparent that Hollywood was capable of taking narrative control of a rock in their territory.
Hollywood gets things wrong more often than it gets things right, the usual complaint being they got things wrong. Eastwood did such a meticulous job, assisted by such able Japanese staffers, that his sin might have been getting things too right. "Letters from Iwo Jima" is much harder to dismiss in revisionist narrative terms, than transparently inaccurate tales such as "Memoirs of a Geisha," or "Last Samurai."
For Japan to insist on a name change for Iwo Jima because Hollywood more or less got it right is a shot below the belt, a blow in a battle for narrative control of war history by linguistic means.

Generally speaking, the words by which English-speakers refer to foreign locales only rarely cut close to the actual sounds used by natives in their own language. Indeed, English speakers are not pressed to call India "Bharata"; nor has it been decreed that China be called "Zhongguo"). Likewise, Japanese, when speaking their own language, can breezily call America "Beikoku" without encountering serious argument.
Insisting on a name change for pointedly political reasons is a different matter. When the Khmer Rouge announced that Cambodia hence forth would be called Kampuchea, and when the dictators of Burma insisted their nation be called Myanmar, it wasn't so much out of concern for linguistic accuracy — good arguments can be made either way — as a desperate attempt at total narrative control; not so much a historian's nuanced appreciation of the past as desire for a clean slate, a new year zero.

Thus to announce to the English-speaking world that henceforth Iwojima is no longer to be known as Iwojima is a decidedly political act. It places the rocky isle in a man-made fog, off-limits, or at least temporarily rendered indistinct and off the foreigner's map.

Ironically, the putative name change is next to meaningless in Japan where the name of Iwojima will continue to be written as it always has been. The only change is in how it is to be read out loud. Native speakers of Japanese have long called it Iwojima (mistakenly or not) in the first place and are apt to continue calling it that unless it becomes a trick test question in Japan's new patriotic curriculum. Without government fiat, both readings are fully acceptable variations to a native speaker.

The mischief inherent in altering the phonetic rendering of Iwojima to Iwoto is that the change is distinct enough to require a new orthography in English, causing cartographers to spill unnecessary ink, or more ominously, causing the old name of the island to sink without a trace. With a deft linguistic sleight of hand, an islet with a contested history is permanently locked in the past, veiled in willful inscrutability.
If the announced "name change" is accepted by Western wire services and leading newspapers, the powerful symbolism inherent in the name Iwojima, enriched with usage over time, will be made more distant and inaccessible. All U.S. history-writing on the topic, the Eastwood films included, are rendered instantly anachronistic. Every discussion of the key wartime theater thereafter will get muddled by cumbersome semantics about the island formerly known as Iwojima. The word is more than a place name; it has entered English as shorthand for bravery, courage and ultimately triumph; it has a similarly profound, if not identical, raft of meanings for Japanese speakers who, too, until last week, called it Iwojima.

The word Iwojima, like the iconic image of men valiantly putting up a flag under fire, is part of the world's historic lexicon. If, due to a calculated political move, this evocative name, and all it has come to represent, is tossed into the dustbin of history, we may one day forget the hard-won lessons of a critical chapter in the historic fight against fascism.

Whether it be definitive battles, documented massacres, the liability of war criminals, the kidnapping and raping of innocent women or inducing desperate defenders to commit mass suicide in the name of a lost cause, it is not just an academic matter to get the history right. Indeed quibbling over minor discrepancies is a useful way to avoid recognizing larger truths at stake.

What is critical is keeping history alive, not in rancor and anger but with solemn recognition of the human condition in all it complexity, in a spirit of reconciliation and in search of common ground between parties once locked in conflict. Eastwood's work on Iwojima comes closer to reconciliation than Ishihara's kamikaze-glorifying "I Go to Die for You" or other revisionist films such as "Yamato" a favorite of Abe.
Maybe it's time for a good movie about the plight of the "comfort women."

Wednesday, April 25, 2007


Bangkok Post, Tuesday April 24, 2007


Japan's revisionism imperils Asian ties

The government claims that comfort women were not coerced to serve in military brothels during WWII


One reason why the "comfort women" issue is so soul-searing in China
and Korea is not because it posits the existence of prostitutes in
times of war, but because girls and women who were anything but
prostitutes were taken from their homes and coerced to serve in
Japanese military brothels known as "comfort stations" during Japan's
conquest of the Asian mainland.

When historical revisionists claim, against ample evidence to the
contrary, that comfort women were not coerced, they not only make a
mockery of military-inflicted suffering and trauma, but they imply
that the victims of rape were prostitutes.

If prostitution is the world's oldest profession, then calling a woman
who is not a prostitute a whore has to be one of the world's oldest
insults. That many of the World War II sex-slaves _ euphemistically
known as comfort women _ were non-Japanese adds a racial dimension to
this unacceptable slander.

Even the deepest wounds may be healed if reconciliation is part of the
process. But if soul-scarring injury is denied, mocked or trivialised,
painful old wounds are re-opened afresh and historic closure is

The systemic, serial raping of the comfort women is revisited every
time a prominent Japanese politician decides to deny or belittle this
ugly chapter of Japan's wartime history.

Motivations for denial range from a legalistic stance based on an
unwillingness to offer serious compensation to the intellectually
dishonest pretence that Japan is not capable of such brutality. The
hurt is not so much a matter of Japan's failure to compensate as the
failure to atone documented wrongs.

Six decades after war's end, European leaders are sufficiently
cognisant of history's hard lessons to pass motions criminalising
Holocaust denial and trivialisation of mass suffering. Why then does
Japan's current government, which prides itself on being as advanced
as Europe in terms of its democratic system, free press and defence of
human rights seem hell-bent on going in quite the opposite direction,
denying history and hurting its historic victims anew?

Given the rising rates of crime and social apathy in Japan, the
revisionist intent is said to be grounded in an understandable, albeit
ill-conceived programme to promote national unity through love of
country, but this does not give adequate consideration to how
self-serving deletions, denials, revisions and endless quibbling, all
in the name of enhancing the Japanese government's stature in the eyes
of its own citizens, serves to cancel out past apologies and take away
what vestiges of dignity might be left to Japan's victims.

Denying the facts regarding comfort women is not a matter of ancient
history or an abstract issue but the slander of real-life victims,
such as the hapless girls snatched from the streets and placed in
brothels by Japan's Special Naval Police, as documented by the
Tokyo-based Centre for Research and Documentation on Japan's War

And there are pressing humanitarian considerations, for some of the
former comfort women are still alive, and all of them left behind
families broken and scarred by war. To deny the reality of those who
grievously suffered in order to make wartime Japan look better than
the facts bear out, is to elevate the status of victimisers at the
expense of victims, to make a hero of one's battle-scarred grandfather
by making a whore of someone else's grandmother.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will soon visit Washington where he
will be received with the protocol and respect as one of America's
most steadfast allies, but he needs to clarify his government's drift
away from the core tenets of the San Francisco Peace Treaty and
Japan's Peace Constitution, two key documents upon which Japan-US
amity and Japan's relations with the rest of the world are based. If
the current revisionist campaign goes unchecked, it threatens to upend
the peace treaty and thrust the entire post-WWII political order
represented by the Allied defeat of fascism into question.

Before assuming power, Mr Abe was well-known for his
hyper-nationalism, whether it be revising textbooks, pushing to
abandon the peace constitution, commemorating war criminals at
Yasukuni Shrine or dismissing the plight of comfort women. If as prime
minister, he continues to promote this hardline revisionist plank with
the symbolic power of the Japanese flag and instruments of the state
behind him, then Japan will find itself dangerously isolated not just
in East Asia where historic tensions remain palpable, but with the
rest of the world which has long since put World War Two fascism in
the history bin where it belongs.

The way Japan's right-wing media has vilified US congressman Mike
Honda for trying to clear up the comfort woman issue reveals the
choke-hold which belligerent revisionism has upon political narrative
in Japan.

When hyper-nationalists stir the pot with racist sophistry, textbook
white-washing, Nanjing massacre denials and blanket refutation of
documented fact, they set Japan apart not only with former victim
nations such as Korea and China, but victor nations such as Britain
and America.

Tokyo mayor Shintaro Ishihara, thrice victorious in the polls, has
mocked foreigners, most especially Chinese and Koreans, with racial
epithets pungent enough to get an American radio shock jockey like Don
Imus fired. And members of Mr Abe's cabinet have out-done one another
in recent months with foot-in-the-mouth quips such as "women are
child-bearing machines," "Japan belongs to the Yamato race," "Korea
was better off under Japanese rule," and the general vilification of
foreigners as criminals.

To say, as Mr Abe did recently, that the sex slaves known as comfort
women were "not coerced" is to engage in subtle chauvinistic sophistry
that cuts close to the history-denying hate speech that is becoming a
regular feature of Japanese political discourse.

It's as if the losers of the last war have regrouped to fight it
again, a revisionist fantasy that has been obsessively explored in
Japanese pulp fiction, film and manga.

Taken as a whole, the history-denying campaign of Japan's xenophobic
right brings to mind Holocaust denial; it is not just hateful and
hurtful, it is plain wrong.

Philip J Cunningham is a free-lance writer and political commentator.

Thursday, March 29, 2007


BANGKOK POST Thursday March 22, 2007


Why Abe will not apologise
Being right-wing means never having to say you're sorry


Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, like his nationalistic predecessor Junichiro Koizumi, is popular with women voters, not only for youthful good looks, but for an easygoing charisma and gentlemanly demeanour. Unlike the conspicuously unmarried Mr Koizumi, Mr Abe makes public appearances with his attractive and independent-minded wife, to the delight of a media hungry for colourful human interest angles in the sober and dark-suited political landscape of LDP politics.Mr Abe's courtship of Ms Akie, the now first lady of Japan, has been memorialised in the tabloid press, and a TV re-enactment of the tender first-date moment was widely broadcast. Upon taking seats in a trendy bar, Mr Abe and his date were said to have ordered a whiskey and ginger ale; the bartender detected an odd but pleasing chivalry at work when he saw Mr Abe switch glasses, passing the hard drink to his wife, content to sip the ginger-ale himself.

Thus it is all the more surprising that Mr Abe's political career is careening out of control over a question of chivalry and courtesy to women, albeit a historic one.

The standard explanation for Mr Abe's intransigence on the comfort women question is that he is trying to placate right-wing political forces who helped him get the nod to be prime minister. But Mr Abe is so right-wing himself, and so close to the power centre right-wing causes that such reasoning rings a bit hollow. Mr Abe is not a reformer like Mr Koizumi, who made political deals on things like the Yasukuni shrine with rightist elements who were fundamentally different from him; Mr Abe is an opinion leader, far to the right of the public on questions of textbook revisionism, re-armament and male primogeniture in the Imperial house.

Still, Mr Abe has had the political wisdom to put off the provocative Yasukuni shrine visits that China and Korea found so off-putting in Mr Koizumi. So why does an astute member of the Liberal Democratic Party's old boys' club trip himself up on the historic question of to what degree comfort women were coerced to render sexual services to soldiers?

Mr Abe's domestic critics point out that whitewashing the deeds and records of Japan Imperial Army behaviour is essential to Mr Abe and his coterie of neo-nationalists not only because the unvarnished truth of Japan's unsavoury militarist past makes future re-armament difficult, but because of an all too human desire to buff up one's family history _ his father was an LDP standard bearer, his maternal grandfather a minister, and a convicted war criminal, active in the wartime subjugation of Manchuria.

More generally, to acknowledge past wrongs makes mobilisation of popular opinion on the issue of national greatness difficult, and instruments of nationalism such as the Hinomaru flag and the Kimigayo Imperial anthem continue to be controversial within Japan because they are associated with the political course that led to a terrible, tragic war.

A more repentent politician might be able to neutralise the divisive comfort women issue by solemnly apologising with a deep bow, Japan's cultural equivalent of Willy Brandt on bended knee, atoning for Germany's historic misdeeds. And even an unrepentent but image-savvy politico might at least claim they mispoke or were misquoted or are waiting to see the results of new probes and research into the matter, but Mr Abe's room to manoeuvre is limited, despite some attempts at damage control by his spokesmen.

The reason why Mr Abe comes off not only as not sympathetic to the plight of coerced comfort women, but not even neutral, is because he has painted himself into a corner on the North Korea abductions issue.

Mr Abe, a relatively inexperienced politician despite political blueblood, catapulted himself into the limelight by taking a strong moralistic stance on the inexcusable spate of abductions of Japanese citizens by North Korean agents some quarter of a century ago.

Why such heinous acts of abduction are daily fodder for Japan's press so many years after the fact is due in part to the Japan-North Korea thaw during Mr Koizumi's tenure that allowed many of the abductees to return home, followed by Mr Abe's relentless emphasis on the issue.

Although NHK is not technically a state broadcaster, the ruling party has some discretionary control of funding. Mr Abe has unapologetically applied pressure on at least two occasions, once to cut scenes from a comfort women-related bit of programming and more recently by ordering NHK's Radio Japan to step up the volume in its coverage of the North Korea abductions.

The abduction issue, compelling enough in its own right, has served Mr Abe's political purposes so well it has become an indispensible part of his political personna.

The Japan-DPRK thaw initiated by Mr Koizumi is over, given mutual sniping and valid disputes regarding the identity and total number of victims, (perhaps as high as several dozen) echoing the dynamics of the PoW-MiA issue that dogged US-Vietnam ties long after the war ended.

The realpolitik strategies of the US, China and others in the Six-Party Talks on DPRK de-nuclearisation and other pressing issues are being undermined by the inflexibility of Mr Abe's moralistic North Korea stance.

And therein lies the quandary concerning comfort women. If even a single abduction is wrong, and several dozen, as North Korea is fairly accused of, is a heartless repetition of such a wrong, then what can be said about Japan's abduction of tens of thousands of girls and women, especially Korean and Chinese, who were driven from their homes and homelands into a life of enforced sexual servitude to the Japanese military?

Japan's WWII image, however it might be tainted with images of sneak attacks and kamikaze suicide bombers, daredevil invasions and punitive massacres should not be held against the post-war generation now in power, unless they glorify it and claim it as their own, as Mr Abe has assiduously done.

If Mr Abe is being asked, as prime minister, to apologise for a heartbreaking case of state-supported kidnapping and involuntary servitude, he can hardly assume the high moral ground about another heartbreaking case of state-supported abduction and involuntary servitude.

To acknowledge the truth of Japan's past abductions, Mr Abe would have to take his main political plank out from under his own feet.

Philip J Cunningham is a free-lance writer and political commentator.

Sunday, March 18, 2007


LOS ANGELES TIMES, February 20, 2007

Listen, Mr. Cheney

Instead of snubbing critics while in Japan, he should seek out their views on Iraq.

By Philip J. Cunningham

WHEN Shinzo Abe meets Dick Cheney in Japan this week, a special kind of chemistry will be in effect. The hawkish Japanese prime minister and the bellicose U.S. vice president, self-described friends, have more in common than declining poll numbers. They both have war on their minds.

What we have on the one side is Abe, a historical revisionist, glorifying the losers of the last world war to reshape the past. On the other side you have Cheney, a hard-line unilateralist who has been one of the biggest planners and defenders of the American-led war in Iraq.

Cheney is visiting Japan this week, according to the White House, to thank officials there for "their efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan." Japan has sent noncombat troops to Iraq and has supplied logistical support in Afghanistan. But even as backing for the Iraq war continues to slip at home, Cheney will arrive in a Japan roiled by its own debate about rising militarism.

The latest example came when Japanese Defense Minister Fumio Kyuma suggested last month that the war in Iraq was a mistake. He was criticized roundly by Abe's people. Now, apparently as a punishment, the Bush administration asked Japan not to schedule a meeting between Cheney and Kyuma during this week's visit.

Thus, Cheney will snub the defense chief, the very person he would be expected to talk to in a visit focusing on defense and security issues. The message seems to be: Friends don't criticize friends. Japan, historically the bully of Asia, instinctively understands such threatening behavior.

There was no rational reason for Japan to get entangled in Iraq, and there's even less reason to become involved in Iran. However, Cheney appears bent on whipping up support for a reluctant Japan to continue to follow the Bush administration's lead in the war-torn Mideast. In refusing to meet with the defense minister, Cheney seems to be saying, in effect, that a silent nod to the wise is sufficient.

But the Japanese can say no, and why shouldn't they? What does the long-term Japan-U.S. relationship get out of this temporary subservience? Is it really in the interest of the Japanese people to bind their fate to the declining fortunes of the Bush-Cheney team?

Or might this be a good time, as opposition leader Ichiro Ozawa belatedly suggested a few weeks ago, to point out the obvious folly of U.S. ways, as a friend would, helping a friend?

Japan has yet to finish apologizing for the mess it made the last time it went to war, so why drag it into a new one?

The U.S. occupation of post-World War II Japan, with the attendant promulgation of a unique "peace constitution," was designed to make a former warrior nation allergic to war, and it largely succeeded. It is not only Japan's neighbors who get upset when Japanese pols visit the Yasukuni war shrine, which honors Japanese war criminals among the war dead; in fact, more than half of those polled in Japan are against such visits as well. From time to time, veteran U.S. voices, such as former Rep. Henry Hyde (R-Ill.), remind us that official visits to a shrine that makes a mockery of such events as Pearl Harbor and Nanjing do not serve U.S.-Japan interests either.

Likewise, Japan should listen carefully to what other American statesmen are saying about Tokyo's whitewash of critical history questions. A motion by Rep. Mike Honda (D-San Jose) calling for an apology on the oft-denied issue of Imperial Japan's "sex slaves" and other wartime injustices is not anti-Japan bullying but a nudge, from a friend to a friend, saying we need to agree on basic facts for the relationship to go forward.

The widespread Japanese commitment to peace, after the devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, extends to an understandable abhorrence of nuclear weapons. Yet military analysts say that U.S. ships armed with nuclear weapons routinely pull into Japanese ports such as Yokosuka and Okinawa — making a sham of Japan's "three nonnuclear principles" (not possessing, producing or permitting nuclear weapons into the country).

Cheney is scheduled to have a photo-op aboard the U.S. aircraft carrier Kitty Hawk during his visit — an insensitive move that might well come to be regretted as a "mission accomplished" moment for the vice president. Tokyo's flamboyant mayor, Shintaro Ishihara, has already primed the public by asserting — without apparent evidence — that the Kitty Hawk is nuclear-equipped.

Instead of posing on the carrier, Cheney should take the time to hear what Kyuma and other Japanese critics of the Iraq war have to say.

PHILIP J. CUNNINGHAM is a professor in the social studies department at Doshisha University in Kyoto.


THE BANGKOK POST, February 13, 2007

The ground zero of humiliation

In Japan's taboo-encumbered relations with the United States, valid criticisms are being leaked and then dismissed as misstatements _ a convoluted way to soften the impact of the truth coming out


When Japanese Defence Minister Fumio Kyuma recently chided the United States for both the pointless war in Iraq and an arrogant attitude towards negotiations on the US military base in Okinawa, he came under heavy fire from both US officials and members of his own ruling party. Hacks from the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) suggested that Mr Kyuma's "regrettable" views had been mistranslated and taken out of context, but the man said what he said and deserves credit for trying to break a long-standing taboo of not criticising US foreign policy.

Mr Kyuma's name was bandied about in Japan's sensation-driven press with ambivalence; on the one hand, he had to endure the indignity of being paired with Health Minister Hakuo Yanagisawa, who recently got himself in hot water for saying women were "child-bearing machines" and that "sound" couples should have two kids.

But the defence chief is no crank, he was iterating a reasonable but inadequately expressed frustration with the way the US chronically mocks Japan's sovereignty, especially on issues regarding the extra-territoriality of US military bases and nuclear-tipped fleets docking in Japanese waters.

If frustrations with this taboo-encumbered bilateral relationship are finally being expressed, it is only tentatively, framed as gaffes by undisciplined allies of the pro-US Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Valid criticisms are leaked and then dismissed as misstatements, a convoluted way to soften the impact of the truth coming out.

Mr Abe may sound like a tough, independent leader, especially when he lashes out at isolated, impoverished and universally-scorned North Korea, and he is candid and unsparing in his criticisms of China, but when it comes to the United States, he is oddly tongue-tied. Part of it is playing to his party's home constituency _ anti-communist posturing helps secure votes and cash from the LDP's rightist political base.

Japanese cartoonist Yoshinori Kobayashi wields the sharp pen of a self-styled neo-samurai. He questions why the LDP political establishment gives a free pass to the US, which he sees as a source of much of the indignity that Japan must endure. In his regular manga spread in Sapio, a bombastic glossy magazine that focuses on security issues, Mr Kobayashi routinely portrayed former prime minister Junichiro Koizumi as "poochie", a craven little pup on a leash, hinting, with more than a touch of artistic malice, that Japan's seemingly independent prime minister was a US lapdog.

This is a sensitive issue, until recently best addressed in below-the-radar low-brow art, because Tokyo has long been dependent on the goodwill of Washington.

But Mr Kyuma's comments, and other dramatically conflicting statements by members of Mr Abe's cabinet suggest the pressure is greater than ever, both to toe the US line and to rebel against it.

The dynamic is not new, but the intensity is. One reason why minor trade spats such as the divisive question of beef imports or US tobacco's penetration of Japan's market tend to generate so much heat is due to a smouldering resentment about important questions relating to national autonomy that cannot be addressed openly.

Mr Koizumi, for all his grandstanding on China and his brazen unwillingness to listen to anyone, including half a dozen former prime ministers who advised him on the political foolishness of ritual prayers for peace at an archaic war shrine, was a push-over when it came to US demands to support an unpopular war whipped up by the White House of George W Bush.

The Iraq war was not in Japan's interest nor did it enjoy support, not for a single day; yet most of the populace, like most of the politicians representing them, instinctively understood that they had to go along with US militarism in that particular instance, in order to continue enjoying the US security umbrella in general.

Japan's Self-Defence Forces were tapped by the Pentagon to put on a show of support for the Bush war in Iraq, and the SDF dutifully put up a Potemkin-style logistics base in the Iraqi desert, all show and no action, wisely located far from the battlefield. But several innocent Japanese civilians strayed into harm's way, trapped in the cauldron of the hatred brewed in "coalition of the willing" occupied Iraq, and paid with their lives, deeply upsetting Japanese public opinion.

When it comes to the US, Mr Abe is following in Mr Koizumi's footsteps, at least in terms of verbal support for Mr Bush and deferentially seeking advice from Washington. In style, if not substance, he is a dutiful subordinate of Uncle Sam.

Japan's leaders know fully well that Washington's interests are not always in Tokyo's interest, especially when the US demands a show of support in imperial folly on the level of Iraq. Mr Kyuma, by addressing these doubts openly, made a contribution to the health of the US-Japan relationship, as did Foreign Minister Taro Aso, who also chimed in. Opposition leader Ichiro Ozawa, an old school politician adept at political kabuki, shrewdly lent support to the strategic trickle of comments re-evaluating the US-Japan relationship, saying the Iraq war was "absurd".

What's going on here?

Japan surrendered to the United States in 1945, followed by a lengthy US occupation which saw the staging of war trials that exonerated some of the most guilty for reasons of political expediency, while imposing heavy censorship on US critics. Six decades later, Japan still tolerates dozens of US military bases and spying outposts on its soil. Tokyo generally does what Washington says, except on trade issues, where the latent nationalism of a country kept too long under wraps is readily apparent.

Increasingly, populist commentators such as manga artist Mr Kobayashi espouse an unseemly neo-nationalism, employing racial stereotypes that pin the blame on foreigners for everything from crime to inter-racial dating. In doing so, they reveal psychological insecurities not unrelated to problems associated with drunken serviceman from US bases in densely populated areas. In foreign policy terms, frustration at the US is irrationally transferred to irritating neighbours who get in the way, such as North Korea, the neighbourhood stray who gets kicked by the boy with the overbearing father.

Revisionism is a reaction, whitewashing history a futile attempt to wash soiled hands clean. Hiroshima was not the ground zero of World War Two as anachronistic victimologists and amnesiac revisionists would have it; the big bomb came after Pearl Harbour, Bataan and Nanking. China and Korea were the main victims of Japan's war, especially the millions of innocent civilians who bore the brunt of Japan's invasion and occupation.

As the US pressed towards the home islands, Japanese troops killed and were killed in large numbers; soldier against soldier, pride battered but not entirely broken, even on infernal Iwo Jima, as Clint Eastwood's twin films on the topic aptly depict.

Then the Enola Gay let go its deadly cargo, invoking terror and incinerating any remnant of pride. Hiroshima, the first city in the history to be instantly erased from the map, effectively ended the war and initiated a long period of subordination to the US.

Mr Kyuma's comments underscore the need for Japan to loosen the straitjacket of the unequal US alliance, hopefully helping Japan to be more responsible and to address the insanity of its own warring past more honestly.

If the systemic humiliation that Japan regularly submits to at the hands of Uncle Sam is not rectified, national frustration will get dangerously bottled up, fuelling reckless foreign policy and further xenophobia.

Philip J Cunningham is a free-lance writer and political commentator.


BANGKOK POST, January 3, 2007

Doing nothing is not an option

The Council for National Security and the government have made little progress in identifying and punishing crimes deemed serious enough by the coup-makers to have abrogated a constitution for


A coup d'etat is a dangerous and unpredictable thing, even in countries like Thailand, where the sheer frequency of barrel-of-the-gun changes in government since 1932 has taught the populace to keep their heads down and accept the inevitable. The political news team at Thai Rath nominated General Sonthi Boonyaratkalin as their Man of the Year in recognition of the considerable courage implicit in staging a coup.

But a full three months after the smoothly-executed and mercifully peaceful coup that removed prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra from office, ostensibly in response to crooked business deals among other things, little progress has been made identifying and punishing crimes deemed serious enough by the coup-makers to ditch a constitution for.

Until the concerted bombing attacks on New Year's Eve, Bangkok looked a lot like a city back to business as usual, the usual wheelers and dealers flaunting their wealth, the usual trembling masses of motorised vehicles jamming every major intersection, the usual footpaths cluttered with tenacious street vendors. Hotels were bustling, luxury restaurants, exclusive shops and spas pampered local and visiting rich, while elephantine malls stretching from Siam Square to Sukhumvit Road narrowed the scope of public space, trees and fresh air even as they offered a new virtual reality: a grandly-appointed and air-conditioned fantasy life for the upper middle and lower upper classes.

Until the last day of the old year, it was as if the decisive Sept 19 coup had never happened, not so much a sympton of political apathy as the application of a kind of folk wisdom: going about one's daily life pretending it's business as usual can help get things back to normal. Unfortunately, pretending doesn't make underlying conflicts go away, and Thailand remains divided along dangerous fault lines of the new and old order, rich and poor, city and country, as well as serious ethnic cleavages.

When Mr Thaksin was in power, he dominated the media, both as a celebrity personality and as a behind-the-scenes manipulator. For the sake of free press and the airing of divergent views, it is a good thing that the greedy media impressario no longer dominates the airwaves or the headlines. But Mr Thaksin, given his modern outlook and loads of money, left a legacy of polished production values, rapid-strike reactions and instant, though often unverifiable, answers to pressing issues.

Mr Thaksin was slick enough with public relations to make the current leadership look like media amateurs, though upon closer inspection this may be a good thing if one values truth over spin. It's just that for a populace conditioned by media tricks and manipulative sleight of hand, hearing straight talk and having to face the unvarnished truth may take some getting used to.

For as America's fatal infatuation with the spin of the Bush-Cheney propaganda team in the post 9/11 period suggests, in times of stress people crave firm answers and seemingly decisive policies in preference to complex, ambiguous, even contradictory truths. A fearful and confused populace badly wants immediate action, even if it means going down the wrong road.

Seen in this regard, the no-frills response of both interim Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont and coup leader Gen Sonthi Boonyaratkalin to the New Year's Eve bombings was both reassuring and troubling; reassuring because they tried to level with the public, admitting there was much they didn't know and there were things they couldn't control; and troubling because not knowing the complete truth and not being able to protect the population as much as one would like to, does not inspire hero worship.

One suspects that Mr Thaksin, and his media flacks, facing a similar crisis, would have been less deferential to the truth, claiming he knew who did it, or had things totally under control, which was his standard reaction to previous incidents of violence, even when not backed by the facts.

No one, not even a strong-armed elected official with a rich war chest and marked dictatorial tendencies like Mr Thaksin, ever has things completely under control. Mr Thaksin came close to controlling the media maybe, but reality always eluded his grasp.

There is perhaps poetic justice in the role switch for the wily politician who once so excelled at buying the news: Mr Thaksin is now a tabloid caricature, a shadow puppet of his former self. The restless man of unbound ambition impatiently tests the limits of his tentative exile, knowing the ticking of the clock daily reduces his importance to little more than last year's news.

Until the shocking New Year's Eve blasts, Thais of all walks of life had been cheerfully converging on Rajprasong intersection to enjoy the company of other people under the brilliant lights of glittering holiday displays. In a quintessentially Thai tableau just days before the blasts, throngs of street vendors plied freshly cooked treats to curbside diners, creating a fragrant obstacle course to tourists who joined luck-challenged locals offering candles and incense to the restored four-faced Brahma at Erawan Shrine, while Christmas decorations and New Year lights shimmered, the tinkle of ancient court tunes were counter-pointed by school kids singing Christmas carols.

If the perpetrators of the bombing spree are not identified and apprehended, such cosmpolitan moments will become rare and public space, already cramped due to over-development in the Thaksin-era building spree, will become sterile and impoverished.

Pressed to choose between an upstart billionaire premier and an august and long-tenured King, the Thai people chose their beloved King. And so boundless is the general admiration of the monarch and so auspicious the anniversary year that the coup-makers were graciously given time to get their act together by otherwise frustrated people hungry for positive change.

But even with the silkiest of coups, the honeymoon can only last so long, and the bomb blasts put an abrupt end to whatever grace period the new government enjoyed. The news from the provinces continues to be troubling, whether it be the intolerable provocations of an intractable Islamist insurgency in the South, or the troubling spate of school burnings in the North and Northeast, or the withdrawal symptoms of the Thaksin populism-intoxicated poor hooked on handouts, easy cash and grand gestures.

Interim Prime Minister Surayud has shown considerable dignity, humility and civic-mindedness in his first few months on the job, a restorative to a population recovering from the loud and brash ways of his megalomaniac predecessor. But remnants of the old order and advocates for a return to electoral politics will be quick to discredit the new government if it stumbles economically or plays too heavy a hand in dealing with terror and other deliberate provocations.

On the other hand, doing nothing is not an option; gaping social wounds will not heal as long as long as ill-begotten fortunes are left entirely intact and fundamental wrongs are not righted.

To be effective, one has to hew a fine line between unwarranted intervention and criminal neglect, between going too far and not going far enough. It's a tall order for anyone, even a wise old soldier, but Gen Surayud, with his track record of using a humanitarian approach to end the civil war with the Thai communists a generation before, may just turn out to be the right man at the right time to lead Thailand away from bitter social divisiveness back on the path to social harmony.

Though tourism and business may suffer short-term reversals due to the blasts and underlying political insecurities, the example of New York and London and other terror-hit cities suggests that things will rebound, even improve, with time. The indomitable spirit of New Yorkers and Londoners is part of what attracts visitors today, just as the courage and resilience of the Thai people and foreign friends in the face of the terrible tsunami demonstrates that a return to normalcy, or even something better than normalcy, is possible.

Two years after unimaginable devastation, Thailand's beach resorts welcome huge numbers of tourists, interested not only in sea and sand but moved by and intrigued by the newly fortified cosmopolitan spirit that grew in response to the tsunami. Pleasure-seeking is now paired with a deeper appreciation for the preciousness of life.

The trials and tribulations that the people of Bangkok, local and foreign, must endure in the days to come, can likewise help forge a new cosmopolitan spirit. While terror can also lead to a closing of the mind and an upswing in petty prejudices, it is also an opportunity for a recognition of shared human vulnerabilities, and it can further allow for an opening of the mind and finding strength in diversity.

For the worst of times contain the seeds for the best of times; squarely facing the fears of the present can help promote a newfound courage, a newfound concern for fellow men and women, a newfound discovery of the things that really matter. That's a bit how it feels now, talking to friends, chatting with vendors, shopping and eating out in a vibrant neighbourhood not far from two of the bomb sites, hours after a series of coordinated blasts intended to instil fear and confusion.

If the people of Bangkok can continue to press forward, as they have been doing already, with both courage and appropriate caution, with concern for others and a cultivated lack of attachment to the distortions of power and greed that fuel most battles, then Bangkok will become a better place to live.

Tourists and businessmen will continue to vote for Thailand with their feet if Thailand's fabled tolerance for diversity and appreciation for different cultures, religions and races continues apace. Whatever hardships must be faced will be shared hardships, and the joining of many hands will make the necessary hard work lighter.

Philip J Cunningham is a Beijing-based freelance writer and political commentator.


BANGKOK POST, September 6, 2006


The unstoppable spirit of democracy

In times of injustice, the spirit of democracy can suddenly emerge with the force of typhoon winds and should not be underestimated


Given the strident polarisation of Thai society as it faces the abyss of political disintegration, partisan violence - and, in the deep South at least, something tragically akin to civil war - politics as usual is part of the problem.

To leave the levers of power in the hands of the incumbent administration, an unusually wealthy coalition driven by greed and a winner-takes-all mentality, not only undermines a sense of fair play, but is hastening the collapse of civil society. In its current fragile, tottering state, Thailand can ill afford business as usual, if business as usual means more of the usual cronyism injurious to society as a whole.

Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra prudently stepped down in April in the wake of political outrage potent enough to invite mass demonstrations and the collapse of parliament, sparked by his two-billion-dollar tax-free Temasek deal. The embattled tycoon, suddenly out of power but not a penny poorer, took a "luxury vacation" whining about his self-proclaimed unemployment after the government he had been at the helm of instantly dissolved with no reconstitution in sight. To keep himself occupied in the ambiguous interim - was he fired or did he quit? Was he a prime minister without a country, or was the country without a prime minister? - Mr Thaksin started writing obsequious letters to foreign leaders begging for personal support, casting himself as the defender of democracy and tamer of terror, hoping the outside world might yet be willing to see things in his own peculiar way.

The tycoon-in-chief jetted around the world, downgrading himself to mere first class on commerical flights when the national executive jet was not available, arranging photo ops with the rich and famous to show he was still in the game. Then, sensing no serious resistance in the warm afterglow of celebrations marking the 60th anniversary of His Majesty the King's accession to the throne, just as the nation was coming together, united in its respect for a singularly enlightened constitutional monarch, just as the nation was at last showing signs of reconciliation and healing, the divisive tycoon tiptoed back into the ring, with the sorry results we see today, upping tensions, stoking violence and further dividing a badly divided electorate.

Democratic protocol has its uses, but the rules of the 1997 Constitution, imperfectly drafted and wilfully misinterpreted as it has been from the start, do not provide easily agreed-upon answers.

If democracy is now looking a bit tattered, that is less serious to the fate of the nation than losing the spirit of democracy.

This spirit is not something dainty that can be wrapped up, tied in a bow and bestowed upon the people like a present; it is a powerful, passionate force that sweeps the land in times of injustice, seeking a better way. If democracy is not allowed to thrive in the halls of government, it makes itself manifest on the streets. Think of the spirit of Oct 14, 1973, think of the spirit of Black May 1992. In the Philippines, they call it "people power", in France they made a revolution of it. In the US, democracy made its appearance at the Boston tea party and culminated in an anti-colonial war of independence. In Germany, it tore down a wall and melted away the divisions of the Cold War.

In times of stress and injustice, the spirit of democracy can suddenly emerge with the force of typhoon winds and should not be underestimated.

Nor should the power of peaceful demonstrations and civil disobedience be dismissed as undemocratic noise. People who put their lives on the line facing possible prison, thuggery or worse, usually have something important to say, and their right to say it should be protected and respected. Of course, in having their say, they have to make room for others to have their say, too.

Slipping down the slippery slope of undemocratic democracy is something Thailand should avoid at all costs, but the danger signals mount. There are strong indications that the formal mechanisms of democracy in Thailand have so hollowed out as to become a tool of the ruling party, the free press so regularly intimidated that some timid editors and journalists reduce themselves to scribes for the powers-that-be, the legal system corrupted by the absolute power that corrupts absolutely.

In the course of unravelling events, running a nation on autopilot while clinging to a corrupt status quo is a formula for disaster; in times such as these the well-being of the nation requires focused attention, flexibility and forebearance on all sides. If the day dawns when Thai democracy is but a dried-out, empty vessel, a shell of its former self, democratic in name, a kleptocracy in practice, then Thailand will be well on its way to being a failed state.

In the chaos of eventual collapse, untold numbers of people will be hurt in addition to those being hurt now. The list of regimes born of formal democratic mechanisms that got derailed and became undemocratic in spirit is a rogue's gallery that includes the Germany of Adolf Hitler, the Philippines of Ferdinand Marcos and the Zimbabwe of Robert Mugabe.

That's why it is imperative to cut through the democratic detritus of a corrupt electoral system that is blocking meaningful change and find a better way. Democracy in Thailand needs to re-invent itself, drawing on both the hot, unbridled passion of the masses and the cool, restrained wisdom of the elders.

For better or worse, national leaders set the tone for national discourse and the country's image abroad. If a prime minister, whether elected directly, indirectly, appointed or otherwise, reflects the collective wisdom and best practices of a nation, this will resonate at home and abroad.

What Thailand needs now is not the helping hand of the world's democracy extraordinaire, embodied by President George W Bush, whose arrogance and partisan intolerance provides a case study of US democratic power gone awry, but a modest home-grown solution suitable to meet local challenges.

One Thai political tradition, not strictly democratic but tried and tested and generally compatible with the development of Thai democracy, is the notion of a neutral interim prime minister appointed by the King.

There is no need to fear a leadership vacuum if Mr Thaksin shows his love of nation by graciously taking a bow and exiting the political stage.

Some of Thailand's most fair and effective recent leaders were appointed prime ministers. The key is to find someone who is not only willing to serve but uninterested in power, someone willing to step down as soon as meaningful elections can reasonably be held. The ideal candidate is a public servant in the best sense of the word, a servant of the people and the nation, responsive to dissenting opinion and respectful of differences.

Perhaps a bipartisan interim government can be put together that includes some of Mr Thaksin's more meritorious appointees, creating a coalition dedicated to keeping the peace until a level-playing field can be established for truly democratic political competition.

It is important that the military be subordinate but supportive of such a civilian government, and it is critical that free press and legal protections remain intact for the sake of justice, social harmony and fair play.

It's a tall order. Any interim government would have to be both wise and untiring in its efforts to reduce domestic turmoil, courageous and uncorrupt, cohesive and confident in the face of the dangerous political cleavages that threaten the nation today.

Thailand has no shortage of talented individuals who are ready and willing to dedicate themselves to the betterment of the people, of all the people, but a bit of experience would help in the interim.

Philip J Cunningham is a Beijing-based free-lance writer and political commentator.