Friday, December 11, 2009


by Philip J. Cunningham

It’s official. US President Barack Obama, long suspected of being the type of person who wanted to have his cake and eat it too, wine and dine with Wall Street while tossing rhetorical crumbs to the poor, dispossessed and hungry, all the while hobnobbing with the rich and famous and amassing draconic executive privilege, has, in his Nobel speech, just proved himself to be the world’s biggest phony.

The two-faced master of the mellow sound-bite has just outdone himself in trying to convince a jaded world that war is peace, that imperialism is liberation, that down is up and two plus two equals five. Even at this most international of events, in a world that desperately needs some leaders willing to look beyond the narrow self-interests of the nation state, he preaches America the good, America the beautiful, America the just. Music to the ears of a stateside schoolchild or your died-in-the-wool Yankee xenophobe, perhaps, but hardly cosmopolitan in spirit.

Rather, his speech is mean-spirited. He goes out of his way, and beyond the bounds of decency, in his effort to show that war is necessary and American warfare is especially just. His argument is lame and conflicted. He says war’s been around for a long time so, hey, get used to it. If he was making a speech in favor of legalization prostitution or opium, there might be some point in making the “oldest profession” kind of argument, but surely that flimsy line of thinking has no place coming from a man who has unique and unparalleled access to the world’s most deadly nuclear arsenal. Surely that pale logic doesn’t justify a war, any war, the war of the moment, the Af-Pak War of Obama’s design, just because there have been wars in the past.

Obama gets shockingly narrow and parochial at times, saying in effect that America is good and anyone who opposes America is bad. He pins war crimes on the other guys, but doesn’t begin to address war crimes of his own nation. Suspicion of American is not justified, it’s “reflexive.”

The weirdest thing about Obama, in contrast to other presidents, is that he has been granted a war criminal gets out of-jail-free card, not so much by cronies in the Party machine that put him up for election, much as Bush and Cheney escaped impeachment and trial for war crimes because of their domestic base, but because the US public gives Obama a benefit of the doubt that was never extended to his supposed polar opposite, man of war, G W Bush.

It’s true that Obama’s presidency is historic for breaking the race barrier, it’s refreshing to see a biracial president in the company of his African American wife. But those who break such barriers, in the name of us all, and generally to the benefit of society as a whole, like peasant turned emperor Mao Zedong, are not perfect and do not get a free pass to commit other crimes just because they are on the right side of a protracted struggle.

The acceptance speech he gave for an undeserved Nobel Peace Prize had some built-in hedging, anticipating, and perhaps responding to Arianna Huffington’s observation that there’s a certain irony in a war president getting the peace prize. But then again, the Nobel Prizes have always been quirky, if not a bit kooky, outside the science awards at least; awarding the Peace Prize to Henry Kissinger being a case in point.

Obama’s speech, like much of his political life, tries to have it both ways. It’s his bifocal vision that makes him interesting to listen to, until you realize he’s utterly lacking in meaningful convictions, and is instead forever tacking left or right as the opportunity of the moment demands. If there is an internal moral compass at work, the needle jerks around a lot.

Why, one only need to look at the text of his speech to see a flim-flam man all over the place. War is not glorious, but warriors are. America’s wars are morally justified, others are not. He respects Gandhi and King, but he’s loves NATO and the US Army too. He lauds “humanitarian” armed intervention of the sort that helped tear the once-solid nation of Yugoslavia asunder, but would not for a moment forgive Alaskans, or Americans anywhere else, if they wanted to secede or seek independence, especially with foreign military assistance.

It’s a one-way street, all over again.

Obama bemoans inevitable civilian casualties, yet posits the US as the standard bearer of just war, even though hundreds of civilians have already been killed on his watch. If his predecessor made an ass of America, the main difference is that he's giving a superficially more dignified performance; call it a donkey instead.

Obama shrewdly, if not a bit oddly, acknowledges the cruelty of the Crusades, which conveniently took place some seven hundred years before America was even founded, but he glosses over more obvious, more relevant and more recent lessons in man’s inhumanity to man. He eschews in particular poignant, tragic examples of the American Man’s inhumanity to man, such as the Vietnam War, in which several million Vietnamese were killed because “the men” in the Beltway couldn’t get their act together, playing hot potato with an unpopular, unnecessary war.

It’s true that a handful of terrorists with outsized rage have and can inflict horrible terror on innocents. It’s also true that take-no-prisoners, spare-no-one-in-the-way approach immortalized in all its deadly valor by famous American generals, --Curtis Le May is perhaps the most egregious example—but it’s a tradition that goes back at least to the time of General Sherman and up to General Westmoreland, if not more recently in the US occupation of Iraq.

Obama opines that a handful of bad men can murder innocents due to modern technology. This has been true for a long time. Robert MacNamara, a wartime Secretary of Defense in a position to understand such things, admitted that Le May, and a handful of technocrats and yes-men around him, single-handedly ordered the murder of 100,000 Tokyo civilians in a single evening by ordering B-29s to fly low and light the city on fire.

Forget the Crusades. What about Hiroshima and Nagasaki?

These two cities, rebuilt from almost total, almost instantaneous destruction, extended invitations that were demurely snubbed by Obama during his recent lackluster Asian junket. Apparently he’s not in the mood to think too hard about peace these days.

The US Commander-in-Chief chides nations for pursuing nuclear weapons, something his nation possesses in spades, and he chillingly speaks, with the power of a terror-inflicting arsenal at his command, of “accountability” for others. And just who is America accountable to?

The arrogant unilateralism of the Bush years rolls on.

Still, one must credit Obama for being at least being self-aware, especially in contrast to the equally narcissistic but considerably more ham-fisted Bush, his predecessor as White House resident decider-in-chief.

Obama is, after all, nothing, if not self-invented, nothing, if not deeply reflective, which is what makes him such a charming writer. He wants to please you, the reader, like a slightly mischievous school-kid who craves teacher’s approval. He wants so badly to be liked, that he’s apt to say very different things to very different people.

His books and school-boyish charm had much to do with his rapid rise as Democratic Party darling. On the one hand, he adopts the “aw shucks” modesty of a man who is not sure he deserves such a prize, knowing full well that being seen as a man of peace conflicts with his day job.

But he’s always been a bit arrogant under the cloak of self-deprecation. Before getting elected he intimated that his victory was our victory, remember “Yes We Can!” Once in power he has been quick to chide critics, mostly through his underlings and the now fraying fraternity of youthful net-savvy supporters, and of late has even been getting up front and personal, as his recent upbraiding of Congressman John Conyers Jr. suggests. Why are you demeaning me? That’s not part of the unspoken deal I thought we had. Being “liberal” means never having to criticize me.

Image management is central to the modern American presidency, why, there’s so much spin and spit and polish and hot air, it makes China’s clumsy, crusty leaders look almost genuine in comparison.

Obama sounds like a man still running for president, he declares war on the hitherto neglected Af-Pak region, but promises troop withdrawals that time nicely with a second bid for the presidency. Like a savvy pol, he knows on which side his bread is buttered, only Americans can elect him, so on this most international of all nights in Oslo, he plays not so much the immediate audience, as to the distant electorate.

He behaves as if he’s in debt to the Democratic Party and supporters who put their money where their mouth was, such as John Roos, Ambassador to Japan, whose previous political experience can be summed up as “generous contributor to the Obama campaign.”

It’s almost obligatory these days to describe the US president as “eloquent” even when he’s not, such as during his recent Asian junket which was much ado about nothing in word and deed.

But words can kill, and Barack Obama’s Nobel speech is a dangerous inasmuch as he’s devilishly good with language. His words serve as a green light to a new deadly war in Afghanistan and Pakistan. It’s not that he cried “fire” in a crowded movie theatre so much as he’s tossing lit matches --incendiary words in favor of violence-- into a tinderbox that threatens to send the world on fire, tumbling down a slope of greater chaos. He’s giving a thumbs up to dropping bombs down from above, putting more boots on the ground, in a war likely to lead to yet more war, all the while wrapping it up and casting it in the most glowing boilerplate rhetoric available.

In making his case for war, he employs, without apparent irony, emotive words such as love, peace, justice, and even the theologian’s “oughtness.” He pulls out all stops, and drops all pretense of modesty, speaking of his work “here on earth.”

He’s not just sounding Orwellian, he’s sounding alien and strange.

Earth calling Obama: Where’s the man you said you were?

Monday, November 16, 2009


(a version of this article appears in the 11/17/09 Bangkok Post)

by Philip J Cunningham

Obama’s Tokyo speech, delivered on November 14, 2009 at a glittering downtown concert hall, gave a select audience the chance to savor the president’s trademark rhetoric, read aloud in now-familiar tones and cadences, accompanied by slightly jarring Janus-like sideward glances, eyes darting back and forth between twin teleprompters.

Designed to set an upbeat tone for the president’s Asia trip, it fell short of his much-hailed Cairo speech as paean to international amity, but served to convince East Asia, despite the late date of his visit, and two distracting wars on the other side of the continent, that the Pacific is somehow the centerpiece of his foreign policy. The pep talk might as well have been subtitled, “America still rules the Pacific.”

The best, if not the most sincere of the many tasty sound-bites offered up in his Yankee-will-not-go-home speech came early, almost haiku-like in brevity, befitting the recollection of a childhood memory. During a visit to the Amida Buddha in Kamakura with his mother, he was distracted by the green tea ice cream.

Thereafter the speech shifts to protocol-laden niceties about the Emperor and warm hospitality of Japan, the usual bromides to reassure his hosts, even though preparations for the visit were marred by serious disagreement about US bases in Okinawa and the pomp and circumstance had to be trimmed due to the president’s arriving a day late and the host prime minister departing a day early.

Despite looming tensions and policy disagreements, President Obama’s speech soon had the select audience in Suntory Hall almost drunk with good cheer, so much so that he could tell the star-struck listeners, who, judging from the applause, were more than willing to suspend belief in order to enjoy the show, that “support for human rights and human dignity is ingrained in America,” without a hint of humility.

No need to think about nasty headlines from the reality-based newspaper world detailing US involvement in torture, bombing, renditions, spying, war crimes, Guantanamo and the AfPak aerial bombing campaign, when one instead can soak up, in a sumptuous symphonic hall, a golden voice delivering gilded words about an imagined America filled the to the brim with good will and good ideas and high ideals.

Still, sometimes the word master’s poetic rhetoric leaned too heavily towards euphemism, even for Japanese tastes. When it came to describing America’s war against Japan, the president seemed to be whitewashing history when he summed up the long bloody war’s end with the trite phrase, “After the guns went silent.”

What an evasive way to describe the big bang at the war’s end, when the US dropped two nuclear bombs, killing over one hundred thousand hapless civilians! The people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki had the bad luck to live in cities that had been left untouched by conventional bombing which put them on the short list of as-yet-unbombed cities suitable for testing the effects of the terrible nuclear device under almost clinical conditions.

If Obama knew Japan better, instead of appointing as ambassador a political donor who had not managed to visit the country even once before moving into the embassy where Douglas MacArthur famously welcomed the defeated Emperor with a handshake and stiff photo op, he might have realized that the Japanese public, far from wanting more of the status quo, just resoundingly rejected the so-called "sense of purpose that has guided ties with the Japanese people for nearly fifty years."

Memo to Obama: the LPD, and its long, corrupt symbiotic relationship with Washington is history now.

And if Obama had selected an ambassador who could speak a bit of the language and had experienced daily life in Japan as an ordinary "gaijin," he might not have held Japan's racialist society up as exemplar of human rights. Japan is a land where long-term residents of Korean and Chinese descent as well as native Burakumin still suffer as second-class citizens, where housing discrimination is legal, where age and sex discrimination are rampant and where discrimination against non-Japanese is enshrined in law.

“In Prague,” Obama goes on to say, “I affirmed America's commitment to rid the world of nuclear weapons,” followed by a boastful caveat. “Let me be clear: so long as these weapons exist, the United States will maintain a strong and effective nuclear deterrent.”

No apparent irony in this Janus-faced announcement by which the commander-in-chief of the only country to have dropped atom bombs on living cities somehow claims the high moral ground when it comes to disarmament.

If nuclear weapons are, as Obama claims, "a strong and effective nuclear deterrent" does it logically follow that "those without them have the responsibility to forsake them?"

He cites Japan as a country that pleases America for not having pursued nuclear capability, when it is an open secret that Japan possesses ample technological means and fissile material, and just needs snap a few pieces into place, to rank as one of the world's top nuclear powers.

But it is pre-modern Japan that offers the most telling insight here. In a realm once ruled by the swagger of steely samurai, ordinary citizens were banned from carrying swords, keeping the peace, albeit in an extremely undemocratic, top-down fashion. Then, as now, those who wield the most destructive weapons get a free pass.

"As I have said before, strengthening the global nonproliferation regime is not about singling out individual nations. It is about all nations living up to their responsibilities. That includes the Islamic Republic of Iran. And it includes North Korea."

A mild contradiction here. He says he's not going to single anyone out, and he goes on to single out the two countries most likely to be targeted by US missiles should tensions arise.

"It is all about nations living up to their responsibilities…”

Responsibility? Why is it a “responsibility” for the US to keep its nuclearized deterrent capacity, while for others “responsibility” means not to seek or covet the kind of arsenal that the US possesses in spades?

Hold the ‘freedom fries,’ pass the ‘responsibility fries.’ Need any ketchup?

If others did as the US does instead of doing as the US leader preaches, the planet would be in big trouble. The US hypocrisy of exceptionalism, even under the genial Obama, extends not only to nuclear weapons but to pollution, carbon footprint and the rapacious consumption of oil and other natural resources.

"Already, the United States has taken more steps to combat climate change in ten months than we have in our recent history"

Oh really? Obama’s accomplishments before becoming President were notably modest, so he knows a thing or two about how to pad a thin resume. When you have little to show for ten months in office you can set the bar really low by comparing yourself to a discredited predecessor.

What’s more surprising, and not at all a departure from Bush’s imperial presidency, is Obama’s disconcerting willingness to continue to employ, and even augment, draconian executive powers while using violence, or the threat of violence, to pursue thorny foreign policy objectives, again, not unlike his predecessor.

“The United States expects to be involved in the discussions that shape the future of this region, and to participate fully in appropriate organizations”

Here the term “expects” like the term “expeditiously” used in reference to sorting out the Okinawa US base issue, is a veiled warning to Japan. Don't even think of leaving the US out of regional groupings, even though US status as an "Asian" nation is a bit of a stretch.

“We are on the brink of economic recovery…We simply cannot return to the same cycles of boom and bust that led us into a global recession.”

Politicians of all stripes like to claim that things are getting better, nothing unusual here, but it's a stretch to suggest can you avoid boom and bust, intrinsic to capitalism, for all time to come.

And what happened to the free market? Obama may not have shilled for Toys R Us as President H W Bush did during his diplomatically inept visit to Japan, but he is disingenuously suggesting that if we can sell you more of our stuff, even while our people buy less of yours, your workers will be happy.

In place of achievement, --the Obama team hasn’t actually done much despite all the hoopla-- we get from the President policy wonk formulations, he’s forever "taking steps" and "moving forward" and "advancing our goals."

In Obama’s Asia, everyone's a partner (though US is and must remain first among equals) and everyone has "responsibilities."

He calls on his partners to share responsibilities, like “rooting out the extremists who slaughter the innocent." In cold foreign policy parlance, the truly objectionable term here is not “slaughter” but "extremists."

Obama and his Pentagon pals have already slaughtered innocents by aerial bombardment in the “AfPak war,” in addition to the mission-not-yet-accomplished Iraq war bequeathed to him by his predecessor. The US remote bombing of impoverished rural locations, whether due to errant targeting, bad intelligence or perhaps even an unspoken cold-hearted willingness to take out an entire wedding party in order to nail a few suspected criminals, might involve slaughter, but don’t call it extreme.

While the US military has begrudgingly, belatedly acknowledged collateral road kill, it will never, ever see itself as "extremist." In other words, what makes the bad guys bad is not killing per se --the US has killed tens of thousands of people in its most recent righteous wars-- but "extremism" --a useful tag for bad guys since "terror” is suffering from word fatigue. To strengthen the metaphor, Obama rhetorically pairs “extremism” with piracy, trafficking, slavery and infectious disease.

If the speech was understandably a bit easy on host Japan, it was a bit too hard on Burma, the admittedly squalid regime that everyone likes to kick, and North Korea, which everyone likes to hate. One suspects an indirect agenda in which Obama is using two of China’s roguish neighbors as proxy targets for complaints he has about China itself but dare not say too loud for fear of offending the communist country that is bailing out and bankrolling America’s broken capitalist system.

"There must be no doubt, as America’s first Pacific President," Obama boldly declares, "I promise you this Pacific nation will strengthen and sustain our leadership in this vitally important part of the world." By what right does the US rule the Pacific? Why must there be no doubt?

The chameleon-like Obama has gotten great mileage out of identity politics that go beyond the racial complexities artfully described in the books he wrote in prelude to his self-promoting campaign. He wants you to believe he's a died-in-the-wool inner city denizen of Chicago, except when he wants to remind you that he is really a laid back guy from Hawaii, and he talks like a disciple of Jeremiah Wright, except when he's doing the Harvard Law school thing.

And it seems he has a relative for every purpose under the sun, --a spunky white grandmother, a tragic African dad, an Indonesian-born sister, and a Canadian brother-in-law of Chinese descent-- all trotted out for political purposes.

But what does his gnarled family tree have to do with US policy? Is he trying to say the Asia-related factoids about his life, which he tends to brush under the rug when dealing with the black-white dichotomy back home, have some kind of essentialist bearing on US-Asia relations?

Tiger Woods, a man of comparably rich ethnic heritage, doesn't wear ethnicity on his sleeve in the same way, nor would it advance his golf game if he did. Does this tireless posturing, cherry-picking of his own biography and playing to the crowd make Barack Obama a better commander-in-chief? A Pacific leader?

This incessant desire to please has obvious utility during a political campaign, but once power is secured, it can produce deadly results, if, for example, hawks in the Pentagon have his ear, or certain hard-boiled constituencies give him bad advice.

The problem with the silver-tongued superstar storyteller formally known as Barry Obama is that he can spin a great yarn, as good a yarn as any politician in memory, and mesmerize people without actually doing very much.

Friday, November 13, 2009


In light of tycoon Thaksin Shinawatra's recent political posturing in Cambodia, which he used as a base to deliberately affront and humiliate the Thai government, all the while being accorded VIP treatment by Cambodian strongman Hun Sen, it is interesting to note that Thaksin's family company was already cutting deals and cultivating "friends" over the border back in the days when he was prime minister of Thailand.

The juxtaposition of the two billboards slyly suggests that Shinawatra is, apparently on behalf of the Kingdom of Cambodia, welcoming visitors to Cambodia. Conflict of interest?

This photo was taken in Cambodia near the Poipet border crossing in 2003.

Thursday, October 29, 2009



(published in the China Daily on October 29, 2009 as "Enjoy black-and-white print while you still can")

The latest gloomy news from journalism's battered front lines is that the prestigious New York Times (NYT) is laying off 100 members of its newsroom staff. Paper-and-ink newspapers are in deep trouble, there's no doubt about that. But the NYT, as comprehensive as its news coverage sometimes is, is hardly in a position to offer the real story on its current woes, anymore than a psychoanalyst is able to objectively analyze him or herself.

What's bad for the NYT is not necessarily bad for journalism any more than what is good for the NYT is necessarily good for journalism. In recent years the NYT absorbed the International Herald Tribune, the Boston Globe and several other news properties with dubious results for investors and readers alike; then the organization that Gay Talese dubbed "the Power and the Glory" invested heavily in a showy new architectural citadel designed by Renzo Piano which was completed just as the economy started to go bad.

But with more than 100 newspapers closing down last year, including iconic newsprint papers in vibrant cities such as Boston, Seattle and Denver, not all the troubles at the NYT are idiosyncratic ones, but can be seen in a general perspective as part of a trend.

With advertising revenue plummeting, and real estate losing value by the hour, the NYT is in a free fall accelerated in part by its own greed.

But it is also a victim of more general downward market pressures; American newspaper readership is down 10 percent across the board in just the past year alone. The moribund economy, with no relief in sight, is leaving many a good newspaper exposed like a beached whale, stranded as capital ebbs away with the low tide.

As newspapers flap about trying to breathe another day, perchance return to familiar deep waters, Internet news aggregators soar, circling above like birds of prey for whom the shifting tide is an opportunity waiting to be picked.

Internet delivery of news is infinitely faster and more flexible. It saves millions of trees from the paper pulp mill and cuts down on the need for noisy delivery trucks and back-breaking labor, so what's not to like about it?

For a brief fleeting moment, consumers can have their cake and eat it too. Newspapers do the heavy lifting, while Internet news sites spread the information around for free, "lite" and easy.

But who will write the news when the newspapers are gone? Who are the new news gatekeepers? The Internet makes us rather too dependent on terminals and telephone lines produced and controlled by a handful of big corporations.

Another problem with the Net is its indiscriminate character. Falsehoods are floated as easily as truths, and although conscientious bloggers may help us navigate this terra incognito, there's no business model to sustain the most truthful bloggers, either.

More ominous yet, there's something called the digital divide which means people who don't care to use or can't afford computers are increasingly being left in the dark, reduced to second class citizens in an age awash in information.

Ironically, readers in countries such as Thailand, though hobbled by lower income, are likely to enjoy their treasured national newspapers a bit longer than Americans, because on one hand, salaries and labor costs are lower, and on the other hand, there is the social imperative to reach the large percentage of the population who can't afford the fancy new digital viewing devices and terminals.

Journalism can and must survive even the most calamitous paradigm change if society is ever to right itself and get things right. In times of economic and social stress, reliable information is more important than ever, incisive analysis a necessity. With the diminished brightness of the day, more and more watchdogs are called for. Shining light in dark places is more critical than ever.

But no press anywhere in the world is free, any more than a free lunch is free. Someone, somewhere along the line must bear the not inconsiderable costs of reporting and researching, vetting and editing, not to mention distribution and delivery in its analogue and digital formats.

A healthy society needs reliable news and information accessible to people from all walks of life at nominal cost, a role newspapers have played rather well for more than a century now.

Newspapers will undergo drastic makeovers, but so will the Internet information highway, which will lose some of its egalitarian luster when the pay-per-view toll booths are installed.

The new newspaper, will be, by necessity, a shape shifter.

It doesn't have to look like a newspaper, it doesn't have to be called a newspaper, but it has to deliver reliable news. And whatever it is that will ultimately replace newspapers must be, like newspapers in their prime, economically democratic.

If such a delivery device doesn't exist yet, someone will have to invent it.

As for the archaic but efficacious paper-and-ink information delivery device currently in your hands --for those of you not already reading this on-line; enjoy it while you can.

The author is Professor of Media Studies, Faculty of Social Studies, Doshisha University, Kyoto.

(China Daily 10/29/2009 page9)

Tuesday, October 20, 2009


by Philip J Cunningham

Is Japan changing for real? To get a better sense of how Japan is and isn't changing with the urbane Yukio Hatoyama at the helm, in the wake of the Democratic Party of Japan’s stunning electoral victory over the entrenched Liberal Democratic, consider these news stories from around the Japanese archipelago.

First, zoom in on the half-unfinished Yamba Dam in rural Gunma, to see how a multi-billion dollar boondoggle can be stopped dead in its tracks. The LDP, incumbents of a half-century standing, have made an art of pouring money, largely in the form of cement, to rural constituencies scattered around the archipelago, rewarding electoral loyalty while denuding and desecrating the environment with dams, bridges and highways to nowhere.

Hatoyama, in power for little more than a week, suspended the dam project. If there is truly change in the air, it is in the realm of cutbacks on pork-barrel spending. The controversial supplementary budget, a last-dash effort inked by the LDP as it was sinking into obscurity, has been scrapped and the overall budget has been massively trimmed.

Now pull back from the rice fields and hills of Gunma and zoom in on the shimmering Tokyo megalopolis, the largest concentration of human beings on earth, with some 40 million people clustered within a 40 kilometer radius. Not too much green here, but not too many roads to nowhere either; instead a vast, vibrant, complex inter-connected living, breathing super-organism with an arterial system of asphalt and iron; electricity and light, a steady flow of trains and automobiles, but what, no international airport?

Only far-away Narita.

The LDP during the height of its power operated much as an authoritarian communist party might have done in the same era. A swath of isolated rice farms in Chiba was decreed to be the new Tokyo International Airport, even though the project was bitterly opposed by Narita locals from the start, and has been inconveniencing travelers ever since. Situated an incomprehensible 60 kilometers outside of city center, it's an airport only big-time investors in infrastructure and social engineers hoping to discourage the hoi polloi from traveling, could love. in effect banishing the gateway of Tokyo to Chiba.

It was the sort of inconvenience to which one could only sigh "shoganai" as it could not be helped, at least not while the LDP remained in power. Long after violent clashes ceased, Narita remained an armed, barb-wired camp, subjecting visitors to intimidating, but largely theatrical, Star War trooper controls.

Then the LDP loses power and within weeks the DPJ’s Land and Transport Minister, Seiji Maehara, makes a bold proposal, suggesting that homely Haneda Airport, located on Tokyo Bay, snugly close to downtown, be the new hub. What? Move the gateway of Tokyo to Tokyo itself? What an idea! And why not?

Narita, like its patron party the LDP, has too long enjoyed a monopoly at the expense of others. But it has been failing on its own terms as well; it's inconvenience has not discouraged Japan's stoic traveling set from spending yen overseas, but it has stemmed the inflow of tourists and their cash. Foreigners, especially those in need of connecting flights, or on urgent business, bridle at the thought of over-nighting in Narita or detouring through the rice paddies of Chiba on bus and on over-priced trains.

One only need to consider the new airports in Inchon, Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong to see how Japan isolates itself, with Narita looking more and more a relic of the 1970's sorry domestic politics.

Maehara's bold bid did not go unopposed, however, and he back-tracked the next day after Chiba governor Kensaku Morita (a former actor, he goes by his stage name) made veiled threats during a sputtering televised performance full of innuendo, suggesting the old guard won't give up without a fight.

Zoom away from the troubled waters of Tokyo Bay and zoom in on distant Okinawa, which bears the brunt of the US military footprint in Japan, not just because it is an excellent staging ground for Pacific Ocean policing, but because the better-connected politicians of Japan proper never really took to the sight of uniformed gaijin walking the streets of their prefectures. The result? Outlying Okinawa long ago got stuck with rather more than its share of US bases, partly a legacy of LDP politicking.

The DPJ owes it to the under-represented voices of dissent in Okinawa to re-examine decades of back-room deals, but here, again, Hatoyama, soon to meet Obama, must tread gingerly, lest the game of base allocation become a bitter contest of musical chairs with the US military.

A quick leap the length of Japan up to its northernmost extremity followed by a zoom in on some windswept islets suggests that the new government, like the LDP, is haunted by the past, despite its intelligent core leadership and early moves to improve relations with China and Korea.

Land and Transport Minister Maehara, still reeling from the backlash from his Haneda air hub comments, escaped the heat by flying north to the chilly Southern Kuriles, where he staged a nationalistic photo op courtesy of the brashly patriotic Coast Guard, publicly pining for the return of the Russian-held islands. Gazing at the hazy outline of the distant isles, Maehara, born in 1962, said he was "nostalgic" for the old days before the Kuriles were "illegally occupied" by Russia.

Nostalgic for what? The 1940's? The good old days when these desolate, rocky isles were used to stage a brilliant sneak attack on Pearl Harbor? If a bunch of rocks can evoke such passion, imagine the bouts of nostalgia a Japanese nationalist might experience at the sight of former territories such as Korea and Taiwan?

Yet another indication that the sweeping change of power in Japan has failed to sweep away all the cobwebs of the political realm comes from the Wakayama coastal town of Taiji, famous for its unnecessary and unnecessarily brutal whaling and dolphin kills.

No less a luminary than the new foreign minister Katsuya Okada has unwisely chosen to defend Taiji's defenseless slaughter of marine mammals by using the "culture" argument, which is to say, anything Japanese do that the international community disapproves of is okay, if it can be trumped up as a facet of Japanese culture.

This evokes the ghosts of the LDP past and hints of a Thermidor to come. "Culture" has been used by old school politicians to defend everything from keeping out Thai rice to refusing Russians entry to public baths, from creating structural impediments to foreign products and services, to refusing the full palette of human rights to Japanese of Chinese and Korean descent and resident foreigners.

Hiding behind the culture curtain is a willful act of obfuscation. It is a slippery slope of an argument, popular with tyrants and Taliban alike, and not a promising start for the leading diplomat of the new, reform-minded ruling party.


Friday, October 2, 2009


(from the Bangkok Post, October 3, 2009)


As a native New Yorker far from home, I felt a surge of pride to see photos of the Empire State Building in the news. The fact that it was lit up in commemoration of the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China is what made it newsworthy.

Casting the upper floors of New York's pride and joy in coloured spotlights is nothing new; it's been done in honour of everything from St Patrick's Day and India Day to Columbus Day and July Fourth. As a New Yorker, one gets used to that.

Some people made a fuss about it and New Yorkers are used to that, too.

Of course, turning on the lights and shifting the colour wheel for American traditions is one thing; doing the same in the name of friendship with a foreign power is another, especially a powerful foreign power.

It comes as no surprise that a coterie of anti-China activists registered their dismay with a little protest at the main entrance to the towering edifice. Nor does it surprise anyone that a handful of politicians jumped on the bandwagon; feigning shock that "communist" China, of all countries, should be so celebrated, or simply channelling a generalised indignation against things not American.

Sadly, there's precedent enough for casting rivals as enemies and regarding anything foreign as suspect in America's long, convoluted history. But there have also been many shining moments when the clumsy, myopic God-favours-my-country-over-yours mentality has given way to a more gracious and congenial cosmopolitanism.

The French-made Statue of Liberty was controversial on both sides of the Atlantic in the 1870s; some French thought Americans too ungrateful to merit such a grand gesture, while The New York Times was the mouthpiece for Americans who termed it a folly not worth paying for.

Bartholdi's soaring statue, huge and patently foreign, was donated by a fledgling regime in Paris, still suffering the throes of political violence, to a wobbly US, still in shock from its own unusually brutal Civil War.

Luckily the artistic symbolism trumped politics in the end. Although the peculiar politics of its original conception as a Roman goddess-styled lighthouse for Ottoman Egypt during the early days of the French Third Republic have become obscure, its ultimate incarnation as a gift to the United States from the people of France has done much good.

Lady Liberty was a bold and provocative symbol of one country reaching out to another, a gesture duly reciprocated, a gesture of such power that it continues to inspire. It has helped Americans to better understand themselves and their better angels; a proud symbol of America's open door, of America embracing the world.

Of course, changing the colour of the spotlights on a tall building for a single evening hardly compares to the permanent installation of a soaring icon, most especially a timeless masterpiece of wrought iron and copper sheathing, majestically installed in the estuary harbour where America meets the sea.

But both gestures share an outward-looking cosmopolitan spirit. Americans in general, New Yorkers more particularly, have a proud history of embracing the world, even when it comes as a burden. It is no accident of geography that the United Nations is located in New York, it is an earned honour for a city that has been entrepot, middle ground and refuge for the world ever since its founding by relatively liberal Dutch settlers and laissez-faire Englishmen.

So a tip of the hat to China on the eve of its national day is not at all out of character for America's greatest city.

New York City is loved and hated to a degree hard to find elsewhere, because it is a city with backbone and the courage of its convictions, a port city so different from inland citadels that some conservative Americans see it as a foreign city, an un-American city, an unforgivably liberal city when in fact it is more radically American in political tradition than many of its detractors.

But a grand gesture can help people to rise above the fray, as was the case with the Statue of Liberty. One can deplore the horrible human rights record of both America and France in the mid-nineteenth century and still value the fraternal gesture represented by the Statue of Liberty.

Coming less than three weeks after yet another anguished anniversary of the devastating Sept 11 attacks, the Sept 30, 2009 light display carries special symbolic value.

The Statue of Liberty itself was closed to the public from the time of the attacks until this past July, and its re-opening is a symbolic lighting of a candle, a sign of re-discovered confidence, a fresh eagerness to look out and reach outward, after the dark miasma of the hate-stained post-9/11 period.

New York is reasserting itself as a world city, a city of the world.

For New York to reach out to China and offer a friendly high-five at a time like this, so soon after the world economy was nearly brought to a halt by the foolish, greedy machinations of Wall Street elitists, is good form; a kind of working-class gesture of humility congruent with New York's distinguished history as a big-hearted, cosmopolitan port.

China and America have, despite inevitable ups and downs, found themselves on the same side of history more often than not, whether it be parallel struggles against the predations of the British Empire at its peak, or the common war against Japanese imperialism.

From the days of the China Clippers to the Flying Tigers, from the efforts of missionaries and philanthropists to the fruition of Nixon and Mao's cunning and counter-intuitive alliance, America and China have found common cause. Illuminating the top of the Empire State Building in the red and yellow hues of China's flag for an evening is a fleeting but memorable wink of acknowledgement from one to another, as friends, if not equals.

Perhaps when the US reaches an important milestone China will offer a reciprocal wink back at the US, illuminating the beautiful Bird's Nest Olympic Stadium in red, white and blue.

If both sides work for peace and prosperity, it is not inconceivable that China's own home-grown version of Lady Liberty will stand again, a symbol of shared values and friendship.

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

Friday, September 25, 2009



One of the wonderful things about Kyoto is how well the environment has been preserved, thanks in part to savvy citizens, ample public transportation and the popularity of bicycle use. On the other hand, what at first glance might seem a pristine environment is quickly being eroded by the boom of automotive culture.

Riding my bike past abundant but shrinking rice fields to the historic site where the Kyoto Protocol was signed I always find it surprising to see how many motorists chose this otherwise pristine symbolic setting to idle away. Cars, taxis, trucks alike park with engines on, whiling away the hours on a tree-lined roadside, in violation not only of parking laws but also violating Kyoto's mild and generally ineffective ordinances against idling.

Similar scenes of drivers with their vehicles left running, idling noisily away while napping, smoking, watching DVDs or just killing time can be seen everywhere in Kyoto, winter, spring, summer and fall.

But it is especially odd to note that some of the most scenic, quiet spots with the cleanest air, such as the street in front of Kyoto's International Conference Hall, where the famous anti-global warming protocol was signed, attract droves of needlessly polluting vehicles like a magnet.

More disconcertingly, since after all, the Kyoto International Conference Hall and accompanying hotel, despite the symbolic significance, are primarily designed for out-of-town VIP visitors, is the way idling drivers lurk in front of local children's playgrounds and public parks, historic streets and temple grounds that are part and parcel of daily life in this proud ancient capital city.

The accompanying amateur video was filmed on an IPhone, mostly from the vantage point of a bicycle in motion.

Saturday, September 19, 2009


(from the Bangkok Post)

Time for change the Japanese can really believe in
Published: 15/09/2009 at 12:00 AM

Japan has a new prime minister and a new ruling party. Prime ministers come and go in Tokyo on almost an annual basis, 50 of them in the post-war period alone, so the change of guard at the top of a huge, humming, well-oiled bureaucratic machine might not seem like news. But Hatoyama's ascension to power might be significant, if the long impotent opposition, now crystalised as the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), takes the helm long enough to steer Japan, Inc in a new direction.

Yukio Hatoyama, who was born on Sept 11, 1947, is nicknamed "The Alien" by his fellow party members for his quirky appearance and different way of thinking.

The DPJ's Hatoyama Yukio - like his predecessors at the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) Shinzo Abe, Yasuo Fukuda and Taro Aso - is a political blueblood and financially secure. He is a member of the elite, which as Japanese like to see it, puts him a cut above the average man.

Like his elite predecessors, the new prime minister has strong personal links to America, not so much in terms of old-time family links with the Bushes or through party hacks on the CIA payroll or through verbal compliance with US fundamentalisms, but rather in meritocratic terms; he earned an advanced graduate degree at Stanford. He knows America but it's not the old boy network all over again. Much has been made of Mr Hatoyama's stated position that Japan needs to adjust its relationship with the US, setting off alarm bells in the corridors of entrenched power in Washington and Tokyo.

But that's just the old guard reasserting itself. What's wrong with some adjustments in a critical bilateral relationship that has been shaped by heavy-handed demands on one side and sneaky non-compliance on the other? Isn't it time to change, time to rejuvenate and re-define the bilateral relationship rather than relying on anachronistic and ossified patron-client links?

It is not as if the US-Japan security treaty is up for grabs, though it can and should be discussed and improved where necessary. After half a century of one-party rule in Japan, a fresh approach to foreign policy and collective security is not really an option, it's a necessity.

The Liberal Democratic Party, born of the ashes of WWII, branded with the imprint of US Occupation, has always been an odd hybrid, neither particularly liberal nor democratic, but an opportunistic mish-mash that was fine-tuned into a winning political machine.

Even if the US was uniformly enlightened in its Japan policy, which is hardly the case, being forced to rely on the Godzilla-like LDP as the main conduit for the conduct of bilateral relations has led to mutations and destructive distortions over the years.

One need only look at recent headlines to see how the LDP's past has continued to haunt the present, whether it be glorifying the lost cause of the last war at Yasukuni Shrine, or the vestiges of anti-communism in foreign policy and anti-labour practices, or the not-so-subtle intimidation of progressives by organised crime and rightwing groups for hire that are themselves relics of US occupation days.

More recently, a bungling obsession with North Korea continues to invoke unfinished business of Japan's historic annexation of its neighbour and what later became America's Korean war.

Then there's the LDP's almost military mindset when it comes to promoting big business and coddling modern-day zaibatsu, all the while building bridges to nowhere and churning out endless pork-barrel spending to nourish a rural elite/big business electoral juggernaut.

It's time for a change, all right, and the DPJ has seized the mantle of electoral legitimacy. The only question is whether the much-needed change will come about or will it be stalled, co-opted and buried by attack campaigns from the right, in concert with passive-aggressive non-compliance from powerful vested interests.

Prime Minister Hatoyama would be wise to take note of how US President Obama, who started out with so much promise, and such a huge mandate for change, only to end up tacking to the right and frittering much of his mandate away, betraying his own reform-minded base in the hopes of placating Wall Street, the Pentagon and America's implacable right wing. Mr Hatoyama and the DPJ face a comparable test, and early indications suggest they too will compromise and bend and revive existing patronage patterns, perhaps until the day that they are not recognisably different from the "fat cats" and the complacent ruling party that they have ostensibly replaced.

For change to have any real meaning, it has to exit the realm of rhetoric and enter the realm of action.

If the DPJ, with Mr Hatoyama at the helm, and former LDP stalwart Ozawa Ichiro navigating at his side, keep their promise to help Japan become a more normal nation - less dependent on the whims of US foreign policy, less beholden to Japan's own elite with its malignant, murky roots in the last world war, and more responsive to ordinary citizens and taxpayers, then Japan is indeed entering a period of change that people can believe in.

If, instead, however, the new government avoids friction by continuing along the beaten-down path created by the LDP, and in doing so sustains the unholy marriage between big business and an entrenched bureaucracy and concommitantly inflates its own military reach while hiding in the shade of the US security umbrella, then the demise of the LDP has been greatly exaggerated.

Even if they stick to their professed ideals, the new ruling team may still succumb to the inertia and stagnation that characterise Japan's body politic today, failing not only to fulfil the promises they made while not in power, but putting themselves out of power again.

In which case DPJ rule will prove not only brief, but may be one day understood not so much as a change in the power structure, but as a short-lived victory for some frustrated, veteran pols of the LDP reform wing, who will give Japan the illusion of change before deftly steering things back to the status quo of big business, big-bureaucracy as usual.

Monday, September 14, 2009


I recently visited CCTV studios in Beijing to participate in a series of National Day-themed discussions hosted by public affairs talk show host Yang Rui. In between taping sessions, I took the liberty to visit the big stage in the CCTV building where a dress rehearsal for the National Day program was underway. It's easily the most interesting thing going on in the whole building.


Walking through cramped studios and cacophonous corridors filled with actors and extras singing, chatting, rehearsing their lines and doing last-minute checks of costumes and make-up brought back memories of working on epic China themed films such as the Last Emperor and Empire of the Sun. It always amazes me to see how relaxed and informal show business people are immediately before and after stepping on stage where they then get into character, momentarily transforming themselves into living works of art.

Here, then, a sneak preview of CCTV's National Day extravaganza, with clips taken on my Iphone. The photos illustrate various stages of China's development, while the video clips are taken from a choral tribute to the "The East is Red," along with some behind-the-scenes moments.

The limited light range of the Iphone created an interesting effect as the actors rushed off stage.

Once offstage, the performers share a crowded hallway with a cleaning lady --the sort of working class hero being extrolled in song on the stage-- yet one who is clearly underwhelmed by the beautiful voices and even less impressed with my attempt to get a picture, to which her curt response is "hurry it up!"

Even if working class heroes aren't quite what the used to be, the East is Red, a folk song turned Maoist anthem, has a staying power that defies the decidedly non-Maoist individualistic rush to riches characteristic of today's China. In its current incarnation the anthem summons nostalgia for a far simpler, if not entirely happy time of forced equality and collective living. The song's folksy appeal suggests that the melody will live on, one way or another, with or without the controversial lyrics.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

CCTV-9 Dialogue, Afghan Elections

Below a link to a September 2, 2009 Beijing television studio discussion about the recent Afghan elections, with reference to the foreign policy quandary facing America, Pakistan and India. Hosted by Yang Rui with guests Aykut Tavsel and Philip Cunningham.

Sunday, August 16, 2009




Published in the Bangkok Post: 15/08/2009 at 12:00 AM
Newspaper section: News

What is it about politics that makes it so hard to find a leader both decent and effective? Why is it so hard to find both qualities in one individual? If an electorate facing urgent problems must choose between a mild-mannered politician in service of the status quo, and an unpredictable Machiavellian manipulator, who offers the greater hope and who the greater liability?

A recent Thai Rath editorial compared current Thai PM Abhisit with fugitive former premier Thaksin, suggesting one man was clearly more decent, but the other more capable. The comparison ended with the lament about the difficulty of finding a leader who was both keng and dee (clever and good). Both terms are praiseworthy attributes, but the former is a kind of efficacious talent or power, the latter a rather more static moral quality.

To reduce complex, internally conflicted adult individuals to simple stereotypes of "clever" and "good" is to employ the language of the schoolyard to over-simplify things a bit. But it's a catchy media angle and it raises interesting questions.

Is the current prime minister being damned with faint praise when he is described as being good but essentially ineffective? Or is it a withering critique of Thaksin to portray him as rather more clever than good? What's better, what's worse?

The editorial gives both pols a slap in the face, suggesting that one is likable but lacking as a politician, the other not particularly likable but perhaps fit for politics. Is there something about the rough and rumble world of politics that makes the concept of a "good politician" an oxymoron? Is it really so hard to combine the two? The Thai dilemma has interesting parallels to the situation in America at the moment. What kind of man is President Obama, if not a nice man? He rode into office on a wave of niceness, he exuded a basic civility lacking in his opponents. And yet he increasingly is showing himself to be far more complex than nice.

Mr Obama is still a crowd-pleaser in personal terms - decent, well-mannered, soft-spoken - and he is revered by his followers with something close to devotion, but a dispassionate review of his accomplishments to date suggests he is something of a phony and flip-flopper when it comes to policy.

Worse yet, there are growing indications that good guy Obama was never quite the good guy that he was widely assumed to be, or if he was, once upon a time, a man both endearing and decent, he has long since shed his high-minded moral standards to get ahead in a treacherous political world where nice guys often finish last.

As is said in China, the higher you go, the more treacherous it gets, with the implication that it takes more than a bit of treachery to get to the top and stay there. Given such a forbidding political terrain, with all the dragons, real and imagined that need to be slain, is it any surprise that being decent and good is not only not good enough, but perhaps even a liability?

On the surface, there would appear to be little worth comparing in Mr Obama and Mr Abhisit, as their differences stand out. One man, who had to overcome the stigma of being a mixed race candidate in a racially polarised society, is the son of a deadbeat dad and had a pointedly less-than-aristocratic upbringing. The other, born with the silver spoon, hails from a nationally respected, well-to-do clan. One is a natural orator and almost obsessively charismatic, the other well-spoken but quiet and retiring.

Both men were educated at elite institutions at the secondary and tertiary level, where prestige of association counts for almost as much as brainpower. Both men are physically attractive. More importantly, both men are widely perceived to be good, decent individuals.

Though relatively young and relatively inexperienced, both enjoyed support from powerful patrons who helped pave the way and set the ground for a launch to national prominence. Key introductions and necessary initiations into the political world were handled by political elders, imparting each candidate with deep personal and political debts even before assuming office. Both were long-shot candidates, propelled to the heights of national power in a way that couldn't have been easily predicted even a year ago. Both maintain a clean image despite surrounding themselves with political operators with less-than-clean credentials. Indeed, both men have gotten good mileage out of their kindly personalities, wearing good manners and decency on their sleeves, and each has helped calm their respectively troubled nation. Each has been reasonably effective in reducing political temperatures that were near the boiling point due to the gross indiscretions of their predecessors. And each, after about half a year in office with little accomplishment to point to, is increasingly being seen, and being seen through, as decent but lacking in the ability to get things done.

That's not to say they haven't tried to make things better. They both follow in a wake of destruction left behind by forceful leaders who were self-styled "deciders". The initial popularity of both Mr Obama and Mr Abhisit can be understood in part as a thirst for change in terms of leadership style; much of their initial success was rooted in the ability to appear as un-Bush and un-Thaksin as possible. The public has lost its taste for imperious leaders who come off as rash, rude and divisive.

Like him or hate him as you may, Bush Jr put plans into action, including things the nation neither wanted or needed, like an unnecessary war. Ditto for Thaksin, who correctly recognised that Thailand needed a thorough makeover, but went about it in the most clumsy, self-serving and callous way as possible, intimidating the media and releasing the gratuitous violence of an ill-conducted anti-drug campaign. With politicians like that, bringing each nation close to the brink, it is no surprise that the electorate could so crave untested candidates who were all talk and no track record. A necessary salve, perhaps, but how long can smiling Taoist non-action be relied upon to lead societies riddled with pressing concrete problems ranging from mass unemployment, environmental degradation, civic turmoil and looming epidemiological disaster?

The jury's still out on both Mr Obama and Mr Abhisit, but each and every passing day, each and every policy delay, fritters away what precious political capital they may still possess as soft successors to hard men. That they inherited a broken, dysfunctional government apparatus is not their fault, but to the extent they follow in the footsteps of their controversial predecessors, attending to the elite while inadvertently condemning the poor to even more poverty, is a betrayal of the promise that catapulted them to power in the first place.

Discontent will mount as fundamental social problems go unattended. Merely playing the role of Mr Nice Guy is not good enough; goodness to have any meaning at all must manifest itself in good works with good results. Given a complex, unforgiving political landscape, the challenge remains; can good men find a timely and effective way to do good works without betraying their basic decency? Can a politician be both clever and good?

Saturday, July 25, 2009


Commentary by Philip Cunningham

Looking at the world through the prism of race is something of an American obsession, one that other countries would be wise not to emulate.

The brouhaha over the arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates by Cambridge police sergeant James Crowley has been marketed from the start as a story about race, which says much about how the American media works and how it feeds off predictable fault-lines in America’s racially fractured society.

But the instant freeze-framing of an ambiguous incident in racial terms, be it a trivial scuffle on a tree-lined street abutting an Ivy League campus or the more serious "racial" tensions that wrack the world, --the most recent manifestation being the deadly rioting in Xinjiang-- serves to obscure rather than elucidate and can end up shedding more heat than light.

Taking sides in a race conflict is a patterned reflex, stoked by the media inculcation. The public takes cues from way the media frames a case to posit good and bad, or in the case of more incendiary dust-ups, to feed the flames of identity politics.

That’s not to say there aren’t cases in which the examination of racial antagonisms, real and perceived, is ultimately necessary to get at the root of a problem, but race, scientifically baseless concept that it is, makes for a very bad starting point of inquiry.

This reflects the irrational and intentionally cruel US racial paradigm that posits that "whites" be "pure" and "blacks," less exclusively, be the class of people who have one or more drops of non-white blood, whatever that means.

Any rational and humane person would dismiss such contorted conceptions if it were not for the real-world social prejudices created by such ridiculous notions. Yet, oddly, the media pundits who seek to overturn racial prejudices enshrine the thinking of those they hate the most. The non-existent social class that bigots refer to as “colored people” has transmogrified into "people of color" as lipped by so-called progressives. What nonsense!

Race is a social construct that can be de-constructed, and while it may prove impossible to consign it to the dustbin of history, where it belongs, it should at least be demoted to a lower place in the pantheon of media frames and social organizing principles.

Casting conflict in terms of race is, to borrow a word from an uncharacteristically intemperate President Obama, just plain “stupid.”

Then again, there’s no shortage of stupidity in the world. One need only mention the elaborate, and deeply divisive constructs of social caste, cults, hereditary nobility, gender, wandering tribes, sons of the soil, and a pervasive members-only mentality to grasp that humans are prone to castigate and categorize others in order to better define themselves.

Splitting a complex world in “we” and “them” terms is so persistent as to be perhaps impossible to avoid. But race is just one of many artificial constructs and it need not be the prevailing one.

Like Jonathan Swift wryly suggested long ago, war can break out over something as silly as the proper way to break an egg. Or as songwriter Randy Newman more recently jibed, the real prejudice is about tall people and short people.

The visionary new world social engineering initiated by the likes of Thomas Jefferson and John Adams and other founding fathers was left unfinished and foundering, in part because slavery institutionalized inequality and scarred America with racialist thinking that persists to this day.

Despite such sordid chapters of its history, and perhaps in reaction to them, America was, is and will probably long remain a stronghold of race-tinged thinking.

So what can be done about the continued obsession with skin pigmentation as a social marker and its dominance as an explanatory principle of American society today?

If racial profiling is to be discarded, so too must affirmative action, the other side of the same racialist coin. For alternatives and inspiration, America would do well to look at other societies where skin color is not much of an issue and integration is the norm.

Generally speaking, countries in the Global South that matter-of-factly embrace racial integration in a way that is still uncommon in the Global North, where race-based identity remains pointed and persistent. One can find societies that fuss far less about race and offer more relaxed racial mixing in South America than North America, take cosmopolitan Brazil for example, but also in countries the US loves to hate, such as Cuba and Venezuela.

Every society has its prejudices, but race need not be the most prominent one.

One of the few advantages to the nerve-wracking Cold War was that it created such a convincing East-West divide that places like Yugoslavia and the former Soviet Union could maintain, at some cost, a high degree of racial harmony within their borders.

There is a related dynamic that, for example, makes it possible for white Americans, who might in other contexts be described as racist, to fully identify with an all-black basketball team playing an all-white team if larger identity issues are at stake, such as Cold War politics or nationalist pride in the Olympics.

If one must look at the world through tinted lenses of one kind or another, perhaps switching the prism through which problems are viewed would help America curb its intoxication with race.

Class, to offer an obvious example, is a powerful explanatory tool for a panoply of social problems, despite American reluctance to recognize the validity of anything reeking of Marxism.

But was there not a hint of class antagonism at play in the recent standoff between a wealthy Harvard professor and a local Cambridge cop? What about mutual grievances of poor Han and poor Uighurs in Xinjiang?

The way the media frames problems bears considerable influence, not only in shaping the public view but also in delimiting policy remedies. If race is seen as a root cause, then sensitivity training or affirmative action might be prescribed. But what if what one is dealing with is fundamentally a class conflict --in which the race card has been played to divide and distract? If the problem is not properly understood at its core, then no amount of race-based rage and finger-pointing platitudes are going to solve it.

Given the deplorable media trend to reduce complex stories to sensational, easy-to-grasp entertainment, one can say the media is part of the problem. The New York Times, CNN and other American news outlets were quick to cast recent troubles in Xinjiang in racial terms, with an implicit good-versus-bad narrative based on a David and Goliath style conflict that put the lion’s share of blame on the communist state, and then on the ethnic Han, echoing similarly inaccurate reports about Tibet a year before.

Though the extremely violent conflict in the south of Thailand gets considerably less media attention, the trickle-down coverage also tends to fit standard US narratives of racial strife or religious strife.

Is race really the best way to understand such intractable conflict? Might there not be other ways to look at areas such as Xinjiang and South Thailand, ways of looking that frames the issue not in terms of religious minority versus the state or in terms of Han versus Uighur or Thai versus Malay? How about keeping the focus on individual criminality, not attributes of groups? Many problems that threaten to divide the world today are overheated because they get cast as the behavior of groups rather than discrete individuals.

That is not to suggest a crime-based paradigm should posit that the cops are always good and the bandits always bad --a more nuanced assessment might take into account bad policing and justified grievances on the part of the law-breakers—but keeping the focus on the crime and not on secondary matters like race and religion helps prevent a bad situation from getting worse. Crime matters.

The US media establishment, led by the New York Times, has made an honorable practice of not mentioning the race of assailants or victims in most criminal cases, aware that incessant reports of black on white crime and vice versa might inflame social tensions. Yet the same newspaper is quick to describe conflict taking place away from its own doorstep in charged racial terms, chiding Chinese authorities for their handling of ethnic divisions and their reluctance to release casualty figures according to race.

In this instance, China’s communist authorities, themselves long-standing victims of sustained prejudiced attacks by the New York Times and other smug capitalistic newspapers, might have properly erred on the side of caution, more concerned with bringing peace to the streets of Urumqi than satisfying NYT editorial whining about disrupted Twitter service and lack of clarity about who was and wasn’t Han Chinese.

One can detect a subtle wisdom in China’s not adopting the New York Times party line on racial matters, even while criticizing China’s handling of the riots in other respects. Ditto for the Thai government's handling of insurgent violence in South Thailand for which racial terminology and clash-of-civilization style paradigms have failed to shed significant light or offer a way out.

The point is the US media obsession with race, often implicit, sometimes in-your-face explicit, is not the most judicious or most efficacious way of looking at complex social problems at home or abroad. It’s an American aberration, born of a thorny past.

Philip J Cunningham

Saturday, July 11, 2009


Commentary by Philip J Cunningham

The recent ethnic riots in Xinjiang are a tragic development for the world’s most populous country. Ethnic strife, probably as old as humankind, is as cruel as it is unnecessary. Part of what makes it so potent are unchallenged habits of mind coupled with the nearly universal human tendency to divide the world into “we” and “them.”

A lack of empathy for those who are “different” is clearly part of the problem. So, too, is the failure to better appreciate the complex, conflicted reality of those close to a tragedy, a tragedy which has become a spectacle for the international news consumer. Behold the Schadenfreude with which the post-1949 “other” is now pitted against the post-911 “other.”

In the old days, rumors traveled narrowly at the speed of sound through word of mouth whispers, while today, electronic communications spread malicious misinformation far and wide at the speed of light, increasing the potential for flash mob action.

Given the global reach of today’s media, one country’s grievous problems can become a spectator sport for the rest of the world. When something big happens in China, US interest is piqued, especially if the big news is bad news.

Politicians and pundits weigh in with quotable quips, often in utter ignorance, and far more often than is prudent. The hungry maw of the 24/7 media machine demands a constant flow of words and images. This free flow of information, including bad, biased and incorrect information, is celebrated as a basic American right.

Of course, free speech is important to the health of any society. But let us just consider, in a make-believe role reversal, what it might be like if the shoe was on the other foot.

Here then, some imaginary Chinese news coverage about a shocking and staggeringly sad eruption of violence in an ethnically diverse region along the American frontier. No offense intended, just something to think about.


The People's Daily, Washington DC bureau reports: And now news from the USA. About a thousand Hispanic demonstrators went wild in New Mexico’s biggest city, beating and killing any whites who happened to be on the street. They set fire to busses with passengers still inside and over turned hundreds of cars, chasing pedestrians. There were bodies everywhere. An unknown number of Hispanics were also killed, some by the undiscriminating mob, others in a hail of bullets. The smashing, looting and burning went on all night until the US police, awaiting reinforcements, brought an uneasy calm to Albuquerque (pronounced A-er-bo-ke-ji).

The city is now under martial law. Thousands have been arrested, Twitter service is down. US National Guard troops have moved into city center. Nearby Los Alamos is reported to be under lockdown.


"Ethnic mobs demonstrate in New Mexico; hundreds dead," says Beijing Evening News.

"Deadly ethnic riots a headache for Washington" says China Daily.

"Rumbles on the Rim of US empire," says the Guangming Daily.

"Riots spread to other towns in New Mexico," says the Canton Times.

"America's Hispanic Crackdown," say China's Finance Street Times.

"Uprising in Albuquerque!" Tune in for the latest exciting footage on CCTV!


"Hu Jintao urges Washington to exercise ‘appropriate restraint’ in New Mexico."

"UN chief Ban Ki Moon urges Americans to use restraint."

"It's genocide!" delcares Hugo Chavez of Venezuela. "There's no other name for it. The gringos are trying to get rid of our Hispanic brothers."


New China Times: "Al Gonzalez, a well-known American, now in exile after serving a prison term in the US, has emerged as the figurehead for oppressed US Hispanics. He says that Washington is covering up the real numbers, which include 800 Hispanics killed by 10,000 whites in a restaurant brawl in Miami, and hundreds more casualties in New Mexico. He describes himself as influential but lacking influence.

-See our exclusive interview with Al Gonzalez, the conscience of Hispanics, --China Fortune.
-See OUR exclusive interview with Al Gonzalez, freedom fighter, --China Newsweek.
-See our exclusive op-ed in which Al Gonzalez explains why the US can never be trusted in what was once the sovereign territory of Mexico, --China Finance Street Journal.
-See OUR exclusive profile of freedom fighter and revolutionary icon Al Gonzalez, --New China Times.

A note of dissent: LeftRightUpDown blog points out that the mainstream media darling Al Gonzalez posted dated photos of a federal crackdown on Indians at Wounded Knee on his Facebook page as proof of US perfidy against Hispanics in New Mexico. The blogger, a statistician by training, also notes the shocking use of statistics randomly pulled out of a hat in Beijing to stir passions about what was allegedly happening in Albuquerque.


"The US state apparatus is dizzy with success," says Lei Moxi, the head of an American studies program for Chinese students in Washington. "The Feds are too strong and too confident to allow change from below."

"It was only a matter of time, says Ting Budong, Hispanic Studies expert at Xian College and Director of the Far West Institute. You see, “New Mexico” is composed of the English words for ‘New’ which means new, and ‘Me-xi-co’ which means Mexico. It was invaded and colonized last century. Recently the number of white settlers has begun to outnumber the native Hispanics."

“Hispanics have long been treated as second-class citizens in their homeland. They wash the dishes, cut the grass, do the dirty work. The whites have the best jobs,” says a Spanish-speaking editor at the People’s Daily who spent over one year in the US.

"Washington failed to spot signs of the Hispanic revolt," says Xinhua.


"Twitter service was disrupted as far away as California,"

"Facebook service spotty after riots"

"The US must immediately restore Tweets to Twitter and Faces to Facebook. And stop blocking service in the riot zone," opines Sham Chum, adjunct lecturer at People's University and a digital “expert” who aggregates anti-US stories on his blog.


"The Americans didn't let us into the riot zone until the second day,” complained the Association of Chinese journalists. "Join our signature drive to protest this unforgivable act."

"US policemen followed us and pushed us when we tried to interview members of a Hispanic gang on a street corner,” complained a journalist from Xian, speaking through an interpreter.

"The US police insisted on following us into the slums where the riots began, claiming they were concerned about our safety," said the producer of a Hunan News show. “Then they asked us to leave. I couldn’t wait to get back to China.”

"First the American authorities wouldn't let us in --that's censorship," complained You Taidu, a prominent Chinese journalist. "And then they let us in, just to show how “open” they are. That's American spin and propaganda."


Chinese reporters, under the suspicious gaze of the US National Guard, interview both whites and Hispanics, recording one heartbreaking story after another.

"A lower middle class white couple from New Jersey, whose son was beaten and killed by angry demonstrators on his way home from work, are overcome with grief. "We moved here ten years ago to get a job, we've been working hard just to break even, and now this. After the funeral, we are leaving New Mexico...forever."

A Hispanic family, in tears about their missing son. "He went to the market and never came back. We are afraid for him. He was a good boy."

CCTV street interviews with typical Americans:

“The police did nothing to protect us. They only protect them.”

“No, that’s not true, they only protect THEM.”

"I saw the mob coming after one of them on the bicycle, I helped her to hide in my house with my mother. Then the demonstrators beat me, saying I was a race traitor.”

“We were neighbors, we got along fine. We used to help one another. What happened? Can't people just get along?"


Wednesday, June 3, 2009


(June 3, 1989 excerpt from Tiananmen Moon)

The driver of the gypsy cab carrying the camera crew hit the brakes with an unexpected jolt, narrowly avoiding a collision. The way forward was blocked by a militant swarm of pedestrians milling about on West Chang’an Boulevard. At Liubukou, not far from the guarded entrance Zhongnanhai, traffic was choked up with the carcasses of three smashed buses and shards of broken brick and glass. We stepped out of the car cautiously, not sure the bricks had stopped flying. The tension in the air was almost visible, like heat hovering over a hot road.

The buses resembled beetles that had been attacked and stripped of meat by an army of ants. The interiors had been picked clean by the mob, upholstered seats ripped apart, metal bars bent out of shape. This was no ordinary case of looting, but an expression of hatred to the fingertips, hatred to the bone. Why the anger, the sacking of a bus? I asked around and was told the story of the Trojan horse. The bus had been full of lethal weapons, ammunition and other military supplies.

"Guns!" a vocal vigilante explained.

"Military issue! There were hand grenades were on the bus!"

But why were the seats pulled apart, the windows smashed?

"The army tried to trick the people," another man interjected.

"They tried to make it look like we had the weapons! It was a trap. They are looking for an excuse. It is they who are criminals, not us!"

A student brought me over to see the evidence. Rifles, machine guns, tear gas cylinders, daggers and grenades were piled on top of the bus for all to see, but wisely placed out of reach. There was a twin danger; a distraught demonstrator might be tempted to grab a weapon and turn it on his tormentors, or the conscientious men guarding the weapons might be accused of collecting them with violent intent; either way creating an excuse for crackdown.

It had all been so sporting up until now, a battle of wits, a battle of wills. A battle of empty hands, empty stomachs, incantatory voices, and tired feet. The introduction of military hardware changed the game entirely. It made a mockery of a month of non-violent struggle. Who was funneling in the weapons? Were they a pretext to crack down or the tools to do so?

“The bus and the weapons are part of a conspiracy to smuggle in troops and weapons to attack Tiananmen,” explained a young man in a white shirt.

"But, what happened to the soldiers on the bus?"

"Those cowards, they ran into the gate of Zhongnanhai. They ran away, they are afraid of the will of the people," he said choking up with anger. "They are afraid. . ."

Although I did not disagree with his words, the strident and unforgiving tone of his voice unnerved me.

"If they didn't run away," added another self-appointed spokesman, "They would face the justice of the masses."

“Justice of the masses,” echoed another man approvingly.

Mass justice, vigilante justice, just what does that consist of? By now I was worried that our BBC crew might become embroiled in a misdirected mass action for some perceived slight, so I erred on the side of caution, quietly asking permission to take some pictures on the bus. Permission granted.

While Ingo and Mark recorded the scene, I studied the tense, shiftless ring of bodies lining the intersection between the broad boulevard and the side road that led to the music hall. There were angry scowls, twitching limbs, nervous facial tics and palpable worry in people's eyes. It was spooky and made me want to leave.

While the film crew did their job, I jotted down some of the anti-government slogans and graffiti on the roadside walls.




Thousands of people stood around shiftily, but their faces lacked the reassuring neutrality of the idle loafers one normally encounters in China. There wasn't much to do, but there was much to think about. Things were way past the point where people wanted to practice English or know where we were from. A number of the young men near the bus stared right through us, numb with rage and fear perhaps, nerves frayed by acidulous thoughts.

Conversation, even among partisans on the same side of the barricade, was difficult. Loquacious small talk, the lubricant of Beijing street life, had all but dried up.

What was happening to the marchers, once so resilient, so peaceful, so optimistic for so many weeks. Were these the same people? If so, were they not fast approaching a psychological breaking point? It pained me to look at them, there was venom in their eyes.

Chai Ling had given a clue as to the true nature of the movement in its current decayed state; it was about blood, but with a twist. Both sides taunted and provoked, intimidated and humiliated, hoping the other side would attack first. Once the blood started to flow, all sorts of unreasonable actions could be justified, once the blood started to flow, an upsurge in sympathy would accrue to those most effectively portrayed as victims of the violence.

That’s what made the hunger strike so effective, if one side could claim victim-hood, the other side started to look like a cruel victimizer. Conversely, that’s why the government was recklessly sending in probes, discarding weapons in plain sight, setting up a pretext. If the people attacked the soldiers, if the generally beloved and legendarily pro-citizen PLA themselves became victims, the polarity of sympathy could be flipped, with the students and their ilk seen in a novel way, not as lambs being led to slaughter, but wolves in sheep’s clothing.

The mounting war of nerves, designed to make the other side look like the predator, brought to mind the haunting lyrics written by Chyi Chin; the northern wolf, cold fangs bared, dust and wind blowing, ready to strike.

The weather was an irritant in its own right. It was hot and muggy, and yet dark for midday. What sun there was, was filtered through a thick haze, the air was stiflingly still. We took our establishing shots, asked a few more questions and beat a quick exit, and not a second too soon. It occurred to me that in a moment of mass panic, our gear could be mistaken for weaponry. Once we broke ranks with the raw, almost seething crowd, a number of unfriendly comments were hurled in our direction, as if we were abandoning them, or somehow colluding with the government.

Even with our heads bent low, we had inadvertently become target for the pent-up anger around us. The driver sensed this, and got in the habit of patiently and deferentially fielding questions from those around us, even those who banged on the car demanding to know who was inside. The driver knew what to say and when to say it. He had uttered not a word in the parking lot when we were cornered by the police, but was quick to mediate when we got caught up in civilian disputes, such as happened in a backstreet hutong near Qianmen when a posse of indignant residents prevented us from filming.

The atmosphere was so edgy, I started to fear the undisciplined crowd more than the highly-restrained soldiers. There were more than a few people looking to vent their anger on anyone, anything. Mercifully, the driver’s gift of gab helped keep things on an even keel and served to deflect those who might otherwise see us as a convenient target.

The rusty jalopy, loaded down with our oversized western bodies and heavy gear, lurched and sputtered along the agitated, littered streets in the direction of the Great Hall of the People. Before we had a chance to establish where we were going, the driver pulled over to the curb and opened the door for us.

"Take pictures here," he instructed matter-of-factly, as if he had suddenly become our producer, and in a way he had. “I will wait for you in the car."

We went along with the driver’s suggestion, taking some of the gear with us, but we didn’t even bother to set things up. Nothing of importance seemed to be happening, maybe that was the point, a chance to rest in the shade. The Great Hall of the People towered to the east over the tiled rooftops of low-rise brick dwellings.

Back alley residents moped around listlessly. There were the usual drifters and loafers, but the habitual stares were glazed over a bit. A brick wall blocked our view of the nearest intersection, but we weren’t looking for escape routes. It was calm, perhaps a bit too calm given the bulging eyes and absence of earthy voices, but calm enough for our attention to revert back to things BBC, talking about our recent trip to the countryside, the June 2 follow-up interview with Chai Ling and other excursions I had been on since getting re-hired by the Beeb on May 29. I distributed popsicles to the thirsty crew as we shuffled slowly in the direction of the Great Hall.

We were sufficiently inattentive to the oddly muffled crowd dynamics to get us on the topic of what to do for lunch. But when we turned the corner, all conversation ceased mid-sentence.

Whoa! Before us a thousand soldiers in full battle dress occupied the street. They had staked out a bit of strategic high ground, running from the rear of the Great Hall of the People to Chang’an Boulevard.

Where did they come from? How did they get past all those people on Tiananmen? Had the Square been breached? Then I recalled the Beijing whispers, long pre-dating this crisis. There were said to be secret underground tunnels all around Tiananmen, leading to and from the Great Hall, Zhongnanhai and other government power centers.

It was as if they just popped in out of nowhere. The uniformed military men, well over a thousand strong, were in crisp formation unlike the rag-tag army units we had seen the night before. Though surrounded by civilians pleading for peace, the men looked beyond persuasion, quietly fired up, ready to kill. If the soldiers in white T-shirts and green pants who jogged into town last night could be characterized as slightly unfriendly, then the fully equipped soldiers today were outright hostile. The only saving grace was their utter immobility, like an army un-earthed from a century’s sleep.

The sight of a battalion of People's Liberation Army soldiers facing down a mass of unarmed protesters on the back steps of the Great Hall of the People was incongruous and unsettling. The tough men were organized in units, some helmeted, some carrying backpacks, others carrying field radios with thick black antennae sticking up into the air. Their self-restraint and inaction encouraged us to move around for a closer look. I helped the crew get set up on the wide marble steps of the back door to the Great Hall, the dignified solidity of the building somehow stiffened our reserve. After getting our establishing shot we approached the ring of soldiers for close-ups. We inched in on the soldiers, careful to look for an escape path in case something untoward happened.

In front of us a tense negotiation was in progress, as members of the neighborhood and student negotiators pleaded with the men in green. The discussion appeared to bear no fruit, argument seemed futile, but at least it was still possible to talk. The soldiers however, were clearly under some kind of disciple that made them impervious to the naive charm of fellow citizens begging for peace.

The situation could get out of hand all too quickly. I scanned the ceremonial cityscape for possible escape routes and hiding places. Would it be safer to go back to the steps of the Great Hall or dive into some courtyard? Would the thick walls of the public bathroom over there provide cover? Would the soldiers use tear gas or clubs? What about guns?

The troops deployed today were the real deal. This was the sort of iron-fisted response to political protest that I feared most when I joined Bright and Jennifer as they stepped through the gates of the university out onto the streets of Beijing on May 4.

We broke the law against demonstrations and nothing happened. Students took to the streets day after day and nothing happened. Students took over the Square and nothing happened. Soon the numbers swelled to a million, student leaders talked of overthrowing the government and nothing happened.

No crackdown, no nothing. The blossoming of the Tiananmen movement was as much the result of inaction as action. It was widely believed that the government, at least part of it, supported the students. China was going through some sort of paradigm upheaval, bigger than any of the parties involved, and to date it was a mercifully peaceful transformation.

The natural outcome might well be political reform that allowed for more personal freedom and open discussion. Or so it seemed.

The army units now entering Beijing by stealth were game changers. In a matter of days, the government’s alleged patience took on a more sinister air. The unwillingness to crackdown the day martial law was declared did not mean there was tacit support for the students, nor did it reveal a compassionate desire for reconciliation; it was just a logistical logjam. It had taken two weeks to move the army into place, and now that the troops were finally face to face with the protesters, things were a lot less ambiguous than before.

I went back to our pre-arranged meeting spot and looked for the driver to discuss a plan of action in case all hell broke loose, but the driver and the old jalopy were gone.

What a time to abandon us! I paced up and down the street where he had told us to wait for him, furious at his betrayal.

"Are you all right?" asked a man who had been watching me. My consternation was visible.


"Are you lost?"

"No, I'm looking for someone.”

"The driver? Perhaps he has gone."

I had trusted him. Was I such a poor judge of character?

"It is not safe here, but you will be okay if you walk in that direction," the man said pointing south.

“But I have to find the car, our stuff is in it!"

“What can I do to help?”

The stranger surely meant well, then again how could one know for sure? Judging the trustworthiness of strangers, in the best of times an inexact science, but at a time like this it could be the difference between escape and entrapment.

I thanked the man for his advice and retreated to the wall near the intersection to commiserate with the crew. Being penned between maze-like hutong and the back of the Great Hall, with thousands of soldiers blocking traffic the path to Tiananmen was claustrophobic.

The gear was gone but an uneasy equipoise prevailed. The soldiers were, for the moment, content to ignore us. Perhaps we could get back to the Square the long way, circling the south flank of the Square on foot, cut past the Public Security compound and eventually make our way back to the Beijing Hotel.

The crew wanted to bail, but just as soon as we commenced our roundabout retreat, there was a surprise.

Our driver was back! He ran up to us, waving to get our attention, huffing and puffing out of breath.

"Sorry, friends, I was busy."

"Where'd you go? We were looking all over..."

"I took an injured man to the hospital," he said, wiping his sweaty forehead with his sleeve.

"What? The hospital? I was almost going to shout 'but you're working for BBC!' when I realized that I could hardly fault him for an impulsive act of compassion.

"What do you mean, hospital? What happened?"

"A man was beaten by a soldier, he was bleeding all over. The hospital is far, all the way over by Chongwenmen,” he said breathlessly.

“Sorry. It took so long."

"No, forget it. I guess, what you did is more important."

"Thank you for understanding." he said shaking my hand, nodding to the others. "You are true friends of the people."

Touched by his concern for others, but not in a comparably altruistic mood ourselves, we decided to return to the hotel with our gear while we could. On the way, the driver suggested we stop by the hospital to take a look. Maybe we could film some of the people who had been wounded, and we all quickly agreed. The broken-doored jalopy offered scant comfort or safety as we meandered through streets bubbling with nervous energy. Getting out of car quickly was no longer the issue, the streets were menacing.

The driver veered south, edging his way through the crowd, patiently snaked around clusters of people left and right and finally made it to Chongwenmen intersection via a series of back alleys.

The driver pulled up to the emergency room entrance of the hospital. A middle-aged woman with bobbed hair wearing a white smock shook her head no, dismayed at the sight of a car full of foreigners, emphatically shooing us away. Wang Li and I got out, with the help of the driver, and approached the prim-looking lady.

"Nihao! Women shi yingguo dianshitai laide," We're from BBC television, we'd like to talk to some of the patients who were injured today. . ."

"You are here in violation of martial law!" she railed loudly. She then parroted word by word a few lines from the martial law regulations. Unmoved by her reasoning, I repeated our request.

"We won't take any pictures, we just want to find out what happened and talk to anyone injured in the fighting."

"As I said," she rejoined, raising her metallic voice an octave, "You are in violation of martial law!"

Wang Li asked me to slip him my little camera, allowing him to walk into the hospital unnoticed while I distracted the woman, who was sounding more and more like a communist party tape loop. She repeated her martial law statement a third time.

"Would you like to say that to the camera?"

By now Ingo had the camera rolling and he was coming our way.

"Get that camera out of here!" she screamed.

She ran after Ingo and Mark, allowing me to slip inside. Wang Li waved me into a sick room. One man, heavily bandaged said he was struck by the military police outside Zhongnanhai. There were several other patients recently wounded. I ran out to see if we could somehow get Ingo in with the camera. This time the woman in charge planted her body between me and the entrance.

"As I said, you are in violation,” she sputtered. “If you don't leave immediately I will, I will..."

I tried to win the support of onlookers to swing things in our favor, a technique that worked when we were of one mind with the masses.

"Just admit it," I said to her, keeping an eye on the group around us, "You're only saying that because you have to, right? In your heart you side with the people, don't you?"

"Get out of here!" she screamed, raising her arm as if to hit me.

What could we do? She may have been a broken record, but this was her workplace. My bid to win lateral support failed badly, no one budged an inch. I backed away from the enforcer and told the crew to pack it up.

A familiar-looking young man with a wispy beard came forward. He was wearing a loose-fitting mint green cotton top that looked like hospital garb, and I would have taken him for a patient wandering the halls were it not for the stenciled words, 1989 Democratic Tide and tell-tale autographs scribbled across his shirt.

He was a student and he had been watching us in silence. Just at the moment when we gave in and started to pack up, he came over to me to talk.

"That woman is unreasonable. She should have let you in."

"Thanks for the encouragement," I said. It surprised me that a Chinese person would readily take my side when I had been arguing, rather rudely, with another Chinese.

"Sometimes I wonder if I should even bother."

I heard you," the young man added. "You have the right to say what you said."

Even though you're a foreigner, he might have added.

The young man's sun-scorched, high-cheeked face reminded me of someone. Where had I seen him before? Apparently he had a similar sense of deja vu.

"Aren't you with ABC?" he asked me.

"No, BBC, England, though I am from America."

It struck me as uncanny that he should ask about ABC. The police had closed down ABC and inspected the office after a copy of the May 28 tape was intercepted at the airport. I had to assume they were looking for me since they were somehow tipped off about the interview I did with Chai Ling.

"My name is Meng, I am a student, from the Central Academy of Drama," he said.

Meng and I got talking and realized we had much in common, driven by a shared desire to keep on top of what was happening at Tiananmen. He looked dangerously undernourished, presumably the result of the hunger strike and water strike. I invited him to join the crew for something to eat, which he agreed to do only if we would make quick work of it in order to hurry back to the Square together.