Monday, August 11, 2008

PERSONAL BEST FROM THE WORST EVER

By PHILIP J CUNNINGHAM




BEIJING While China has been dazzling the world with its economic prowess and Olympic pyrotechnics, a very unpopular US president has quietly dazzled his Asian hosts with uncharacteristically diplomatic behavior.

It may be a case of too little too late, but nuanced diplomacy from a man best known for his swagger and war-mongering comes as a counter-intuitive surprise. Has the self-styled cowboy president finally learned to walk the walk and talk the talk of diplomacy? Can small gestures of humanity from the poster boy of a generally inhumane administration reverse the self-inflicted decline of American values at this late hour?

Consistently courteous, even going out of his way to make a show of compassion, and speak in favor of peace, President Bush in recent days has given us a glimpse of what his administration might have been like had he been more like his father, had he not, in some kind of weird Oedipal rage, stacked the deck in favor of Dick Cheney and the neo-cons.

In recent days Bush Junior, sometimes with Bush Senior standing at his side, has spoken up in favor of core American values such as free press, religion and assembly with his usual degree of certitude but without the haughty neo-con triumphalism that threatened to make freedom, as in freedom fries, an empty Orwellian word.

After seven years of belligerent posturing and mangling of the English language, Bush shows up in Asia relaxed, affable, almost reasonable. It’s as if he never truly wanted to be president in the first place and is relieved to see light at the end of the tunnel.

Going to South Korea, as he did, at a time when incipient anti-Americanism threatens to explode takes a certain degree of political courage, as did his initially unpopular decision to attend the Beijing Olympics. Putting Thailand on his itinerary was an important diplomatic gesture to an old friend and ally of whom much has been demanded as an outpost in the war on terror but for whom little compassion has been evident since the economic crisis of 1997.

So when 9-11 came around and the US tried to paint the world into two camps, "with us or against us." Prime Minister Thaksin’s response was loaded with a kind of passive-aggressive ambiguity. “We’re neutral.”

The mere visit of a US president can't change all that but there are signs of healing, no where more evident than in the photo-op of President Bush gently embracing a sick child at Father Joe Maier's mission for the poor in the slums of Bangkok.

While the sight of Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej and President Bush conferring is enough to cause a university cynic to take umbrage, wondering how two decidedly second-tier intellects could actually become national leaders, one might also extract something positive from that fact that two legal, if not fully competent, representatives of two friendly peoples are offering a toast to continued Thai-American amity.

Since arriving here in Beijing, his performance has soared. He has deftly balanced pressures from home to speak out on human rights while not unduly offending the Olympic hosts, who also happen to be legal representatives, fully competent or otherwise, of the most populous nation on earth.

Chastising China on human rights from a podium in Bangkok may have sounded like something of a pot shot, and Chinese authorities immediately feigned indignation with a mild boiler-plate denunciation of his denunciation, but his hosts were clearly pleased that he got most of that out of his system before arriving at Beijing Airport.

Commandeering the spanking new Westin Hotel for the traveling White House, which just happens to be across the street from the brand-new US embassy where Clark Randt, an old buddy serves as ambassador, Bush quickly set an amicable tone for a visit that, in media terms at least, has been hard to distinguish from a family vacation, albeit, that of an extremely privileged family.

What sports fan wouldn’t envy the magic pass to any Olympic event that strikes his fancy, with VIP seats and brisk motorcade access via emptied streets guaranteed? Bush attended the opening ceremony, much to the pleasure of his hosts, along with his family and old, doddering Henry Kissinger in tow. At the founding ceremony for the new embassy he exchanged quips with his father, who he had briefly resided with at the American mission in Beijing in 1975, and spoke with credibility about how China has changed for the better since then.

Bush Senior seems to have finally instilled some understated Yankee restraint in a quasi-rebellious son prone to fits of Texas bragging, the productive result being a more nuanced China policy than the anti-China Cheney cabal would ever be capable of.

The presence of Russia's paramount leader, not to mention 80 other heads of state in Beijing, offered the American president a rare opportunity for personal diplomacy, most especially with the man whose soulful Russian eyes he once gushingly approved of.

Vladimir Putin's impatient, pale countenance at the stunning opening ceremony held at the Bird’s Nest stadium in Beijing reflected pressures other than the oppressive heat --his country was exchanging bloody strikes with Georgia as he sat through the interminable introductions in French, English and Chinese of sweaty athletic delegations from 204 countries.

The message Bush had for Putin in the days that followed was simple; so simple one wishes Bush could have heeded the same advice on Iraq: make peace not war.

The family vacation trope continued to tickle the news media regardless of political tensions mounting behind the scenes. There’s something about faraway Beijing, where the hospitality for visiting heads of state is first-class, that appeals to presidents unpopular at home. That it imparted a second life and legacy for Nixon’s career cannot be disputed. Bill and Hillary Clinton famously spent a full week in China in 1998, visibly reluctant to face the heat back home due to the minor but memorably salacious Lewinsky scandal then creeping into US headlines.

In tourist mode, Laura Bush got to wander around an empty Forbidden City, a stunning privilege I can vouch for as I once had rare access to the same locale while in the employ of Bernardo Bertolucci during the filming of “The Last Emperor.” Meanwhile the president, who can’t be bothered with reading the first draft of history in newspapers, let alone thick tomes, remains admirably active for a man of his age and elected instead to hit the biking trails for some exercise.

The light-hearted tone of the Bush visit continued, mixed with soft-spoken prods on human rights mixed and respectful comments about China finding its own way. The US president found himself in a decidedly less-than-presidential dilemma at the beach volleyball venue at Chaoyang Park when a sexy bikini-clad US athlete invited him to smack her backside. It’s best left to the reader to surmise what Bush's immediate predecessor might have done with such an invitation while noting that Bush handled the crisis-in-opportunity well, patting the sportswoman high on the back like he does with Putin, Hu Jintao and everyone else he wants to establish alpha-male status with.

All in all, a compelling performance from a man whose historical legacy hovers near “worst ever”, a man who conned a frightened nation into war while blithely ignoring the worst natural disaster in recent US history, a man who trampled on US human rights and racked up credible charges of war criminality in his treatment of foreign enemies.

If only he could make the first seven years of his presidency go away, he’d be on track to re-invigorating US-Asia relations. Where was George W the diplomat when the world needed him most?

Sunday, August 3, 2008

BEIJING OLYMPICS: THE APPEAL OF A FORBIDDEN CITY



by Philip J Cunningham

Beijing August 3, 2008


“Where’s the Forbidden City?” a blonde-haired woman asks at an Olympic information kiosk. The Beijing volunteers sporting blue and white T-shirts take so long to come up with an answer that I am almost tempted to intervene.

“Forbidden City? You’re in it!”

Beijing, under strict watch and privileged as the capital to begin with, has become a bit more forbidding than usual with all the Olympic rules, regulations and tight security precautions. The clean, spruced up streets have become further rarified by sending hundreds of thousands of rural workers back to the provinces while restricting the number of foreign tourist with new visa regulations. For those of us privileged enough to be here, there are still boxes within boxes to negotiate, as the city is carved up into forbidden zones of privilege to accommodate the Olympics in impeccable style.

There’s the vermillion walled grand palace once occupied by the purple and yellow clad Qing emperors of course, known to most Chinese as “gu-gong”, but even that sweeping architectural monument is dwarfed by the sheer number of forbidden zones in the modern city. There are vast walled compounds for leaders, party officials, military, police, diplomats, foreign residents, and now, for the time being at least, strictly guarded zones related to the Olympics which go beyond the Olympic Village to include dozens of major hotels, and college campuses.

Even Tiananmen Square, that once open and unbounded plaza located smack in front of the entrance gate to the feudal Forbidden City, putting old China in symbolic counterpoint to the egalitarian promise of the new China, is now reduced to a heavily guarded, fenced-in site with limited access.

If the people of China sometimes grumble or shrug their shoulders about being "put out" by playing host to the world, their discomfort is mitigated by a shared cultural imperative to do the right thing when “having company.”

That’s not to say that treating guests differently from locals is not without its awkward moments. When I arrived in China by boat from Japan in July, disembarkation was delayed an hour by due to a safety check. Far more discomforting than the muggy heat was the announcement that travelers had to line up by nationality.

As an American I was directed to the head of the line, followed by Japanese, followed by the majority of passengers who were Chinese. The intent may have been Olympic-style courtesy in name of international harmony, but it created a sense of unease instead, especially for families of mixed nationality.

It reminded me of China in the early eighties when Chinese and foreigners lived side by side in parallel worlds, moving with apparent freedom but never intersecting, like bishops of opposite color on a chessboard.

What is it about China then and now, that makes being forced to inhabit a no-Chinese zone the highest honor that can be bestowed on foreigner who ostensibly wants to see China and rub shoulders with its people?

At Tianjin train station, the segregation was strictly economic, the “soft” waiting rooms of the sort once reserved for foreigners and VIPs now available for a fee. From that modest enclave we were whisked to Beijing on a sleek Chinese bullet train named Harmony only to encounter intense chaos at Beijing Station due to a taxi-queue monopoly and the sealing off of the subway entrance, explained by exasperated locals as an Olympic-related move to inhibit the flow of provincial arrivals.

Is it a triumph of traditional hospitality or a failure of confidence that a city be cordoned off for the “convenience” of guests?

The customary street-life of the Beijing neighborhood where I’ve lived on and off for twenty years has been oddly subdued in recent days. The habitual sidewalk vendors, beggars, buskers, DVD touts and lookers-on have vanished without a trace, replaced by a trickle of foot traffic watched over by police and security guards resting under red and yellow umbrellas sporting the “I’m Lovin’ It” logo. The best café and best restaurant in the area had to halt business, fenced off inside a sterile zone created for the American delegation, but the adjacent fast food joint remains open.

Even if members of the American delegation were to step beyond the comfort zone created expressly for them to grab a burger or perhaps take a walk for a taste of quotidian life, they might find it hard to appreciate that what they see and don’t see is a direct result of their presence.

The American footprint on campus and the surrounding neighborhood is so heavy it has altered the topography.

Twenty-two years earlier I had been assigned “foreign” housing on the same campus, but being a student of Chinese history I bristled at the idea that I live in a habitat created for foreigners. It took a letter of introduction from the widow of a former PLA war hero to secure a place outside of foreign-designated zone, and even that “breakout” put me in an anomalous situation. I dined and bathed in shabby communal splendor with local students, but was under curfew and close watch in the “Inside Guesthouse.”

Over time I’ve come to appreciate that this leafy campus is not just about students but is also the de facto public park for the neighborhood, a place where old timers take walks, kids frolic in front of library where the Mao statue used to stand and joggers enjoy free run of the tracks.

No more, at least not until the Olympics are over. Campus is under a kind of double lock-down, outsiders can’t get in and insiders are denied freedom of movement within. Resident families are carded at every gate and uniformed guards are posted every hundred steps along the leafy campus thoroughfare. Outside nearly every building or sports ground an American is likely to use, temporary tents house X-ray machines and inspection teams. The Inside Guest House was razed, replaced by a modern amenity center for American athletes. The twin campus running tracks are wrapped in opaque blue shrouding.

The uncanny stillness at the normally bustling East Gate of campus brings to mind Brandenburg Gate in the days when Berlin’s main thoroughfare was divided by a wall, only now, in the spirit of openness, economy and flexibility, vermillion walls and stone turrets have been replaced unsightly wire fences of the sort used to keep North Korean refugees from scaling embassy walls.

Security concerns are real and athletes intent on being the best in the world require privacy in habitats that are familiar and convenient.

So, if it’s inconvenient it is mostly understandable, though some of the rules, such as bans on outdoor parties, kite flying and nightlife are at best only tenuously linked to the welfare of visiting guests.

Athletes and foreign dignitaries, including the US president, will also move inside narrow sterile zones within wrapped in forbidden zones, seeing Beijing without seeing Beijing.

It is a testament to how much China has and hasn't changed in the last quarter of a century that forbidden zones abound and access remains defined by status.

Although the foreigner-only Friendship Stores and Friendship Hotels are dinosaurs of a by-gone era, new elite comfort zones create a modern equivalent of the same, based more on money than passport.

Today’s draconian rules are resented but not resisted because of the unspoken compact that things will loosen up again when the honored guests leave. But in a city as status-driven as Beijing, forbidden zones have an innate appeal. Even after the shrouds, facades and temporary fencing come down, one wonders if the playing fields that count the most will ever be level.

pc