Monday, July 8, 2013


Level the playing field
Updated: 2013-07-08 07:15
By Philip. J. Cunningham ( China Daily)

US-China relations are entering a new era, the outlines of which are still somewhat blurred by the ever-expanding ringlets and ripples set off by the shock of former National Security Agency operative Edward Snowden's blockbuster revelations of intrusive NSA spying. US President Barack Obama has shown a cavalier disregard for the privacy and pride of ordinary people in America and around the world, while pretending nothing's wrong and it's business as usual.
At the time of writing, America's most famous "hacker" is still holed up in Moscow airport, trying to figure out where to go next. He could have gone to China, by his own reckoning would be a path to luxury and comfort, "petting the Phoenix", as he put it. But he left Hong Kong in a hurry and rushed to Russia.
Now he's saying he doesn't want to stay in Russia either, which seems to support the notion that he really is a freelancer at heart, hoping to steer clear of big power politics, though he has certainly stirred up enough East-West intrigue to bring back memories of the Cold War and US bullying. Bolivian President Evo Morales was humiliated by the moves of Washington's European allies to halt and inspect his flight on the suspicion that Snowden was on board. The result? Two countries in Latin America have made offers of asylum.
The Cold War was not a good thing but the division of the world into different camps had its advantages when it came to making clear expressions of sovereignty. For a couple of decades, China did what it pleased without having to answer to the US. It could offer refuge to American radicals and victims of US injustice without giving a second thought to Washington's reaction.
Snowden, despite an expressed interest in Asian culture and the study of elementary Mandarin, would find himself a total outsider in China. Even in the unlikely event that Snowden might have found sanctuary in China, Sino-US relations would have regained balance quickly because the two countries are intricately interlinked economically, and there are built-in mechanisms such as the upcoming Strategic and Economic Dialogue and track-two meetings that keep the conversation going.
I remember being in China during the uneasy calm after the shocking Sept 11, 2011, attacks, a rare moment in modern history where the world's mightiest military power was unexpectedly the victim, and most of the civilized world rallied to its defense. At a briefing given by the US embassy in Beijing, a US State Department spokesman asked for China's understanding of America's intent to attack outposts of radical Islam in Afghanistan and elsewhere. When the question of Islamist violence in Xinjiang was raised, the spokesman quickly changed his tune, saying: "No, that's different. That's a human rights problem."
This is a classic example of "America can do no wrong, China can do no right" that has long infected US diplomacy and the media and even academia. To point out this obviously false narrative, as I did on a China politics list named Chinapol a few years ago, is tantamount to declaring the US emperor had no clothes. The University of California, Los Angeles academic who ran Chinapol, despite dedicating his life to researching China, had also worked for former US president George H.W. Bush and had access to NSA secrets. So he discouraged criticism of the US and banned Chinese scholars in China from joining the online community "for security reasons".
US politicians will continue to make pretty pronouncements about "human rights" and "free speech" it's in their political DNA to see the world in red, white and blue but it's going to ring hollow and sound hypocritical since the US, in its cyber-security overdrive, is increasingly guilty of violating the very values it preaches most loudly.
Getting back to the business of business does not mean business as usual. The US must stop once and for all acting like the "king of the world". US diplomats will stutter and mutter vague platitudes about how "all countries spy" and then change the topic. But they should drop the hypocritical lecturing and hectoring about cyber security, as if it were a one-way street with the US as the sole victim.

Saturday, July 6, 2013



When the Roman empire fell into decline, the people were treated to bread and circuses. With America’s might on the wane, it’s more like breadcrumbs and circus reruns.

Just take a look at American news coverage these days; it’s rock around the clock infotainment. The latest mega story is the trial about a shooting that took place in Florida a year and a half ago.

A local scuffle, yet it gets wall-to-wall coverage, day after day. The TV pundits go on and on about what they think the judge is thinking, what they think the jury is thinking and who they think is going to win and who they think is going to lose. They are the chorus to the tragedy, a shooting, converted into mass spectacle and spectator sport.

Every death is a tragedy, but criminal violence sells. It’s a central narrative of a country that puts more guns into more hands and puts more people behind bars than anywhere else on earth.

Given so many lurid cases to choose from, it takes a perfect storm of factors to transform a news bit from last year’s police blotter into the trial of the century. Enter George Zimmerman, who is standing trial for the shooting death of Trayvon Martin. Their inter-racial scuffle has been reconstructed and scrutinized over and over, second by bloody second, word by bloody word during prime time news and entertainment slots.

During breaks in the much-trumpeted, heavily advertised, televised trial, wedged in between noisy commercials, there are news updates from around the world. Hey look! There’s some endearing footage of the American president, now touring Africa, dancing upon arrival in Tanzania. Wow, he can really move. Then there’s also some tidbit about some hacker dude named Snowden holed up in Moscow airport and what’s that? NATO air controllers scrambled to force the landing of the Bolivian President’s jet? Sounds a bit like the Zimmerman approach to controlling the space. Oh, and looky here, the hacker dude released some kind of secret documents, but hey, it’s the human angle, blame-the-messenger and the catch-me-if-you-can narrative that really gets the bovine pundits chewing the cud. And in between the cracks and commercials of the full Florida court criminal trial, there’s even a little something about some popular uprising in Egypt, or was it a coup?

Nightly news is top dollar billing time, so the bottom line makes foreign news a hard sell. Every second counts. No time to give it the Zimmerman treatment unless it’s smoking hot, unless it really sings, unless it has that extra special zing.

Burn baby burn.

There’s no denying that trials have a natural narrative appeal and that America is rift with racial tensions, but the media makes too much of such things. Trials such as that of OJ Simpson, and now this one, serve to turn up the heat and stoke civic mistrust, depriving viewers of other news while subtly dividing the public into irreconcilable camps. Who are you for and against? It’s not as much fun as the Coliseum or bread and circuses, but it serves a similar function. Keep the masses distracted and off-balance so as to diminish their attention and weaken their solidarity. If it’s a slow crime day, there’s always terror to stoke fear about.

Burn baby burn.

It’s news, unless it isn’t. The epic upheaval in Egypt was neglected while the TV cameras focused on uneventful non-events in a stage-lit courtroom. Other news had to wait for a break in the trial, the July 4 holiday, which opened up an air-time window for the day-after fireworks in Cairo.

Even essential news about the United States has been getting the short shrift, especially the shocking revelations of NSA abuse. It’s classic misdirection, stealing attention while emptying the treasury to steal secrets.

In both cases Obama and his foreign policy team have been caught flat-footed, and in the wrong, but don’t expect much in the way of explanation or apology. The White House has a non-answer to everything; spin, spin, spin.

But why fret about such things when you have a charming President who’s got game? There’s a little bit of something for everyone, nothing concrete of course, but a little symbolic something.

The media-pleasing president tours Africa, part work, part family vacation that sees him whisked him from one impoverished land to another, all inside the billion-dollar bubble of the Secret Service sterile zone. It’s only right that he should find little ways to pay back the public that supports his caravan with their tax-money. As a show of gratitude, working class American men and women can tune into the news and get some "wish you were here" postcards in the form of carefully crafted photo ops and that delightful video clip of the president dancing. Hey, he's got some good moves. Smooth moves.

Dancing upon arrival in Africa is an odd American tradition, one of those obligatory things that would reek of being outright patronizing were it not so silly. Bill Clinton did it, so did Hillary Clinton, as Secretary of State. Even George W Bush wiggled and wriggled and shook some booty for the cameras in Africa, looking every bit the bad white boy.

Dance baby dance.

Despite the wars they’ve waged as commandants for global domination, when it comes time to boogie, the Clintons, Bushes and Obamas are just ordinary folk, after all. Just like us. Just like strangers on the bus.

Why, with all that presidential rug-cutting going on, did anyone sit still long enough to notice that trade between China and Africa trade has grown tenfold in the last ten years? And the Chinese don’t dance!

Beijing’s no-nonsense leaders come from a generation for whom gyrating in public brings to mind the humiliating “loyalty dance.” Even though times have changed, it's hard to picture the proud, unsmiling Communist Party stalwarts Hu Jintao and Xi Jinping bouncing like bobbleheads on cue, and truth be told, the world is probably a better place if they never have to. But American presidents have to put on a show and dance they will. It’s what they do to be liked and its what their advisers think their followers like to see. And it makes for perfect TV. Brought to you live and in color, spectacles heralding the decline of an empire.

Dance baby dance.

Meanwhile, the world is on fire, rife with war, simmering conflict, open revolt and revolting inequity. Yet America averts its gaze, turning its attention to the reality show inside the Coliseum instead, shocking and scaring, tickling and titillating the viewing public, serving up  juicy bite-size bits of infotainment, freedom fries on the side, while the pressing issues of the day are shunted aside and the real news slips by unnoticed. 

Thursday, July 4, 2013


by Philip J Cunningham

“Sanctuary! Sanctuary!” is the pathetic cry of the title character, played Charles Laughton in the 1939 classic film, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, when he frees the heroine from the hangman’s noose and whisks her into the safety of sanctuary inside the cathedral, and just in the nick of time.

The life and times of Victor Hugo were full of revolutionary turmoil, brutal injustice and futile defiance, yet his tales are not without life-affirming acts of asylum and grace. Finding sanctuary from the long arm of the law and vengeful officials was not just a literary theme, but a fact of his own life. Hugo had to hole up in exile in liminal lands such as the Channel Islands to enjoy some autonomy from the domineering realms of France and England, though his unyielding defense of press freedom caused him trouble even in exile, and he was expelled from Jersey, finally settling in nearby Guernsey, where he composed Les Miserables.

Questions of sanctuary, and the quality of mercy, are very much in the news these days, given full court press of President Barack Obama’s manhunt for NSA “hacker” Edward Snowden who revealed the president to be a tool of an out-of-control security state with an unquenchable thirst for secrets and secrecy. Obama’s New Cold War warriors deprive people of privacy in the name of security, claiming that the law is on their side, when not hiding behind invisibility cloak of state secrets. The sheer, often-overbearing might of the US was on display when the plane of Bolivia President Morales was forced to land due to the suspicion that Snowden might be on board. This heavy-handed secretive push to deny Snowden asylum in this jet-patrolled, drone-prone and widely wiretapped world is a pox on Pax Americana. 

A dingy airport transit lounge is as close as Snowden has come to finding a cathedral hideaway, but his captors are honing in, ready to pounce.

Snowden’s early and repeated declaration of interest in going to Iceland is telling. Given a choice, he’d rather live in a small neutral country than play into the hands of great power rivals who sport robust spying systems of their own. But he has no way to get there.

So where can a principled fugitive from justice find sanctuary nowadays? Is there a single house of worship in the United States that isn’t bugged, that couldn’t be overrun by an aggressive Swat team? During the Vietnam War, Canada was North America’s lofty cathedral, a recognized asylum for draft dodgers, a breezy alternative to the rough justice of imperialism. Are there any countries left in the world willing to be cathedral Canada today?

Many netizens knew early on that Facebook was full of privacy holes, but Skype was trusted until Snowden told us not to. Was Skype’s free-from-eavesdropping image crafted by deliberate misinformation? Snowden’s revelations not only show the public that the two internet giants were untrustworthy, but that two presidents were too. George W Bush gets worse press than the charming Barack Obama, but their disregard for privacy is comparable; if anything Obama has been worse.  They are the Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum poster boys of NSA’s looking-glass world.

With bugging comes illicit knowledge and with illicit knowledge comes the power to blackmail. Not only is the US hoovering up the world’s digital dirt, but in acting upon this ill-begotten information, Obama is bringing back the ugly politics of J. Edgar Hoover.

After a fortnight of US wheeling and dealing, countries who have unspoken reasons to fear US wrath, large and small, are suddenly out there doing the loyalty dance, rejecting in July the same political fugitive that their media outlets cheered so loudly in June. Look how quick little Ecuador got in line. Portugal and France caved, Brazil bowed out. Even the big government of India showed itself to be stuck in a colonial mentality. It’s ludicrous claim that the US is “not snooping” reveals India’s self-destructive desire to be more like the US, in the worst way possible. India is aping of the US security state, by shoring up a spy state of its own, designed to monitor the email and phones of at least 900 million people.

Even Russia’s steely Putin flip-flopped, saying that Snowden must stop “work aimed at harming our American partners.” Partners? Partners in espionage?  Was the Russian won over by Obama’s wily, poker-faced bluff, or did the US bring some special pressure to bear? Putin can still save face and make a sop to popular opinion by allowing the “hacker” to move on unmolested. But where to?

Will Snowden find a temporary Tahiti in some Latin American port of call, only to be served cold justice by the mean-spirited Captain Blighs of the US security state? Going back to the “land of the free” would lead to a life decidedly unfree, a land of handcuffs and a loaded trial, followed by incarceration, probably for life.

China remains the world power most capable of resisting US pressure, but it also ranks among the least sentimental about individuals who speak truth to power, despite its storied history of courtiers who upbraided unruly emperors. If the state-to-state summitry so popular in the world today speaks to anything, it is that one political machine tends to grasp the needs of another political machine better than the lone men and women who dare to stand up to the machine.

Where have all the Channel Islands gone?

For a young man with nothing left to lose, Snowden has shown considerable pluck, but also a kind of scrupulousness. By all evidence he has not been swayed by money nor expedience, choosing to hole up in a tiny room and rejecting the easy, sleazy comfort accorded a defector, which he refers to as “petting the Phoenix.” His stubborn, bright-eyed idealism has a naïve element, but he is no Pollyanna. He worked lucrative jobs in the spy business as a factotum and technician, hacking in the shadows for a dark and murky power until he dared to let his sense of decency get in the way.

Snowden’s revelations put pressure on the US, home to the biggest spying network the world has ever seen, to move from darkness to light, or in the words of the immortal Victor Hugo, to move “from injustice to justice, from falsehood to truth, from night to day, from appetite to conscience, from corruption to life.”