Wednesday, March 20, 2019



China’s recent decision to ground the Boeing 737 Max showed it can play a constructive leadership role in the global order. The US, long held to be the international standard for safety and all things aviation, stumbled badly by being the last country in the world to ground an upgraded line of jets plagued with a tragic safety flaw.

In the face of complacent US protestations of safety and a last-ditch lobbying effort by Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg to keep the new model flying, China took the prudent road, erring on the side of caution. In vivid contrast to US dithering, a product of corporate conflict of interest, Wall Street profit-seeking, deregulatory zeal and a US government shutdown that resulted in lax oversight and the delay of urgently needed fixes, China decided to make a call for “safety first.” 

One shudders at the realization that the problematic jet might have been grounded in time to save lives had Washington not sunken into a criminally negligent haze of political sparring and regulatory inactivity.

Will the real leader of the free world please stand up?

China did stand up, and despite not being entirely free, it did show leadership. It was not cowed by the money it had on the line as a big customer of Boeing, nor was it swayed by complacent reassurances from the FAA and Boeing corporate offices. The FAA, currently without a head due to the willful intransigence of the Trump team which seems to hate Obama-era bureaucrats as much as it hates safety regulations and environmental protection, was shamefully clay-footed in its response to the latest tragedy.

Granted, the costs of grounding a lucrative model, with hundreds of vessels in the air and thousands being readied for delivery worldwide, makes for a tough decision. Even if handled well, the economic losses were bound to be steep and reputation hard to recover. But foot-dragging and covering up exacted a terrible price in lives. After the second crash, tens of billions of dollars vanished from Boeing’s stock valuation. 

Simply put, it is both stupid and immoral to let the bottom line become the tail that wags the dog. 

Western media reaction to the two jet crashes offer a case study of perception bias. There was dismissive finger-pointing, not always explicit, but insinuated, often expressed in code, the code by which inexplicable tragedy is the province of far-off locales in the third world, not the USA. 

As globe-trotting journalist Howard French lamented on Twitter: “One learns lots about deep-seated attitudes toward Africa thru incidents like this Ethiopian Airlines crash. Headlines scream about non-African casualties, amid insinuations this was cheap, 3rd World operation, when in fact Ethiopian has a great record of safety and global service."

To castigate the apparently exotic and supposedly backward nature of non-American users of American technology is way of shifting attention. Indonesia? Ethiopia? If it’s geographically remote, it’s not “our” problem but “theirs.”

Another tack is to subtly shift blame to the pilots, as happened in the Indonesia case. These planes are state-of-the-art, the computers are smart, the code was updated to deal with potential trim problems, so what about human error?

Captain Sully Sullenberger, who bailed out of danger by crash-landing in the Hudson River in 2009, had to endure insidious second-guessing. Now viewed as a hero, he recently wrote that the redesign of the 737 MAX 8 was "urgently needed, yet has still not been done, and the announced proposed fixes do not go far enough.”

Another feint in the blame game is to question the whistle-blowers, whether it be pilots unhappy with overly automated controls or engineers puzzled by gaps in the revised manual. Veteran activist Ralph Nader, who lost a relative on the doomed Ethiopian Airlines flight, has said the FAA is a “patsy” and called for the new jet to be grounded. He said he could find no one at Boeing willing to talk, so he issued an open letter: Passengers First, Ground the 737 Max 8 Now!

Boeing is a juggernaut with a storied history that has produced many amazing aircraft. But taking a cue from Trump world, in which nothing matters more than profit, where being rich means being too big to fail and where accountability is kicked down the road, Boeing’s corporate suits in Chicago, keen on keeping their stock price up and the competition down behaved dishonorably.

When it comes to US aviation product, Beijing is deeply invested as a big consumer and economic partner—it accounts for a quarter of all Boeing commercial sales—so it has every reason to want to keep the planes flying, albeit safely so.

But American media outlets reflexively loyal to the “home-team” US corporation engaged in malicious snickering at China for unilaterally grounding its jets. 

China Sends Skywritten Message by Grounding 737s” was the headline of a Foreign Policy article that ominously warned of “Beijing's ambition to own the skies.” 

Elsewhere, TV pundits and the digital commentariat variously intimated that China’s move was a deliberate blow, a new front in a bitter trade war and opportunistic grandstanding.

In response to such rebukes, China Daily took a measured editorial stance: “…the CAAC's action is not a case of jumping to conclusions based on very few facts. It is right to exercise caution and consult with the US company to ensure the safety of the planes as nothing is more important than human life.”

Life is precious, indeed. Given the long list of human rights complaints that the US has directed at China, the irony is rich, but China is right on this one.

The rise of tribalism internationally makes for politics rife with reflexive scorn; it’s East vs West, Atlantic vs Pacific, Airbus vs Boeing, US vs China, and “we” vs “them.” But if the ancient Chinese system of yin and yang teaches us anything, it’s that opposites do not exist in isolation, but are a dialectic, and each side needs the other to become whole.

Let us hope China and the US, both key stakeholders in a rules-based global order, continue to cooperate with each other, circling one another, exchanging criticism where necessary, to keep the chaos of a frayed, fractured and decaying world order at bay.

(published on April 2,2019 in China-US Focus)

Wednesday, March 13, 2019



On Monday, March 11, 2019 a Cornell University lecture on “Terror Capitalism” in Xinjiang was abruptly interrupted by a fire alarm just moments after the speaker made an observation about everyone being watched by invasive technology. Out of the blue, an electronic siren started wailing and an ominous machine voice issued instructions:


It seemed like a bad joke at first, but nobody took any chances. The august academic building known as Goldwin Smith, where the exiled writer Vladimir Nabokov once leisurely stalked the hallways, was emptied in a hurry.

Fortunately for the hundred or so students who had to clamber out the nearest exit, the long winter that has held Ithaca in its icy grips since early November was showing signs of letting up; a bright spring sun was shining and the snow was melting away. 

But there was another kind of chill to contend with as the emergency alarm continued its eerie electronic throb, especially since the lecturer had been talking about a topic that is all but taboo in China. 

As the audience, a good portion of whom were Chinese, abandoned the lecture hall in an orderly, obedient manner, students and teachers could be heard joking about the suspect timing of the alarm, especially since there was no smoke or any visual indication of danger.

“They must have pressed a button in Beijing,” joked a professor.
“Maybe someone phoned in a warning,” said another. 

China looms large in America these days, even on an isolated Ivy League campus. Hardly a day goes by without news from China, and the news is rarely good. The news cycle is awash with stories about nefarious United Front infiltration, the tricky philanthropy of Confucian Institutes, hair-raising accounts of involuntary renditions, shocking televised confessions, and an uptick in accusations of economic espionage. There’s even a massage parlor angle, involving guests of President Trump at Mar-A-Lago. The media may be guilty of piling on, but the stories are generally well-documented, creating a mood rife with Cold War style polarization and paranoia. 

The Cornell lecture, entitled, “Terror Capitalism: Uyghur 'Reeducation' and the Chinese Security Industrial Complex" was based on recent field research in Xinjiang by Darren Byler, a scholar from the University of Washington. In calm, academic tones, he painted a picture of a modern dystopia in Xinjiang, with moving quotes from Uighur acquaintances who despaired of the stark controls, sudden arrests, ubiquitous surveillance and the suffocating sense of being walled in.

When the fire alarm went off--causing the evacuation of a lecture hall full of independent, inquisitive minds curious to know more about developments in China --the interruption seemed to drive home the guest speaker’s key point: Xinjiang is scary but it is not just Xinjiang. Technology in the name of security is increasingly a menace in its own right, a universal human problem that just happens to be shamelessly on display in China. 

Byler surmised that some of his informants, whereabouts unknown, have disappeared into the bowels of the security state. One facility, exhibited on a satellite map, was said to house 130,000 inmates, making it “the largest prison in the world.” Or to use the kind of euphemism preferred by Beijing as it belatedly tried to explain away their presence after the camps were uncovered, it’s “re-education” housed in “vocational training centers.” Even the term “boarding school” has been bandied about, presumably since the “re-education” includes free room and board.

If the idea of “re-education” falls on deaf ears, it’s with good reason, because such techniques, albeit at a lower technological level, have been tried before. Draconian security measures allow a repressive state to kill two birds with one stone, quelling dissent while harnessing productive labor, as was the case in the Cultural Revolution and other Maoist mass movements.

Where Mao might disagree is the way in which today’s armies of captive labor are being nakedly exploited by capitalist firms that manufacture commercial goods and cash in on the booming business in security technology, which Byler says is currently worth seven billion dollars.

And then there’s the propaganda, something old and something new. Chinese slogans shown as part of the lecture included gems such as:
 “Wear civilized, good-looking clothes, be beautiful Urumqi people, resolutely oppose abnormal clothing and behavior!” and “It is absolutely forbidden for any women of all ages to wear masked clothing.”

The latter line had an odd resonance with latest media flare-up on the question of Islam in America in which Fox News anchor Janine Pirro took congresswoman Ilhan Omar to task for her headscarf:  

“Think about it: Omar wears a hijab…is her adherence to this Islamic doctrine indicative of her adherence to Shariah law, which in itself is antithetical to the United States Constitution?”

Students on US campuses these days are by and large too “liberal” and too finely attuned to notions of political correctness to find themselves in agreement with the testy Judge Jeanine, but she wasn’t speaking into a vacuum.

On issues of immigration, law and order and anti-terrorism, the party line at right-wing Fox News hews closer to that of Beijing than most hard-core Trumpists would be comfortable to admit.

In fact, the build-the-wall, show-no-mercy constituency of Trump’s political base would find much to admire in China’s overly coercive, overly racialist, and overly Orwellian treatment of the people of Xinjiang.

The American hinterland’s embrace of Trump, and Trump’s embrace, in turn, of heavily armed border patrols, aggressive ICE agents, shoot-first-ask-questions-later police vigilantes and budget-breaking disbursements for the armed forces suggests that militant authoritarianism has a sizeable constituency, even in a democracy like the US.

No wonder Trump can lay claim to a special relationship with Putin, Xi Jinping and Kim Jong Un; they all use militant populism and a heavily-armed security apparatus to get things done with a minimum of democratic fuss. 

After ten minutes of talking conspiracy while shivering in the low, late winter sky sun, the campus fire alarm went silent and the disbanded lecture regrouped, though with fewer students than before. The momentum that had been building when the lecturer said, “Google and Facebook know you are here right now” may have been lost in the hasty evacuation, but it was good to know the danger had passed.

A call to campus security confirmed the incident was not triggered by smoke or fire, nor was the building emptied due to a prank call, but a rare seasonal misfiring of a video monitor that is part of the building’s automated fire detection equipment.

When the reddening spring sun started to set, the automatic alarm got triggered, its automated video detector mistaking the blaze of the sun for a fire.

Sunday, March 3, 2019


While researching a piece on Kim Jong Un's penchant to travel by train, I came across some oddly-reported BBC footage, a real beauty. In an act of reportage that is at once ignorant of Chinese social custom and in defiance of all known diplomatic protocol, the BBC video asserts that the footage shows China's paramount leader Xi Jinping playing second fiddle to the big kid from Pyongyang on his personal train.

There's clearly a middle-aged man making a visit to Kim's private train, but do Chinese look so much alike to BBC's Anglocentric staff that the most photographed man in China can be mistaken for a random official?

Below a screen grab of the inaccurate news report, just in case BBC belatedly gets around to fixing the subtitles and accompanying text of the video. But don't expect them to fix it anytime soon, that would be the admission of an error which would tarnish their know-it-all style.

The Youtube video links directly to BBC's Youtube channel which boasts millions of viewers. Here is the full explanatory text of the video:

"On his first known foreign trip, newly released footage shows Kim meeting with Xi Jinping on his armoured train. The meeting marks a warming of relations between Pyongyang and its sole economic supporter, and paves the way to proposed summits with South Korea and the United States."


In contrast, here's how the more reputable new services in the media ran the picture of the first meeting between Xi and Kim.


Saturday, March 2, 2019



By Philip J Cunningham

The US-North Korea summit just held in Hanoi produced little more than staged photo ops for the hordes of journalists who booked into five star hotels—in fact one of the few “big” stories was about US journalists getting unfairly kicked out of one fancy hotel and having to move to another—but an intrepid cameraman working for a Japanese TV station took an unconventional, old-fashioned approach, and got perhaps the most telling image of the entire summit: an unauthorized glimpse of Kim Jong Un in Nanning, China. 
More on that later.   
What looked at first glance like joke material for comedians--Kim Jong Un’s 60-odd hour journey to Vietnam on a clunky old, slow train—turned out to be one of those stories where the journey was as important as the destination. Not for the beleaguered US President Trump who dashed across the globe to Hanoi only to fly home empty-handed, nor for Kim Jong Un, who endured the slow train in the desperate hope of getting sanctions lifted, but China. Like the proverbial elephant in the room, deft diplomats achieved maximum impact without doing much at all. By offering Kim a high-security “rail pass” Beijing became the gatekeeper.

This way, China was poised to gain from the summit come success or failure. If things went well, it could lay claim to a supportive role. But things didn’t go well, and as things fizzled out, it emerged a beneficiary of the abortive summit. Win-win, either way for China,  a case of classic diplomacy through geography.

Beijing boosted its prestige in a way that went far beyond the technical commanding of rail switches and armed security at crucial junctions to the deploying the power of the scenic and symbolic; the real power play behind the slow train was to showcase China. 

As the train chugged along across a country vast in territory, rich in history and bulging with economic resources, Kim had only to look out the window to realize that China is a viable alternative to the US when it comes to brokering political survival. Beijing, in return for greenlighting the special train, gained ritual respect, firming up the subtle sense that North Korea is--though no one would be so undiplomatic as to say this--a borderline tributary state. The lay of the land alone suggests that the hermit kingdom can’t be effectively dealt with without having China on board.

North Korea’s media did not report on the train journey at first, and China, for reasons of security, protocol and autocratic control, did its best to slow the free flow of information by thwarting news and social media coverage. The Western press, meanwhile, was duking it out for the best rooms in lovely Hanoi. When the train story belatedly broke in North Korea, the coverage jumped from scenes of departure in Pyongyang to arrival in Vietnam. China was nowhere to be seen in the state narrative and it didn’t need to be, for it was conspicuous by its absence.

To history buffs, the 35-year old Kim’s armored train ride had historical echoes, significantly recapitulating the itinerary of his grandfather Kim Il-Sung, who traversed China in 1958 to meet Ho Chi Minh in Hanoi. It also invited comparison to his father, Kim Jong-il, whose fear of flying was so great he went almost everywhere by rail, replete with high-end dining, lobster tanks, a fine wine collection and entertainers known as “lady conductors.” Trains have long been a comfort zone for the Kim family when crisscrossing their own impoverished country, with some twenty private stations and hundreds of luxury carriages to choose from. When Kim’s father died in December 2011, it was said to have been on a special train.

North Korea state video of Kim Jong Un’s February 23, 2019 departure from Pyongyong showed Kim walk the red-carpet gauntlet of bowing officials, bayonet-bearing troops, a goose-stepping major domo, clapping bureaucrats and fervent admirers with pink pom-poms. In his trademark jolly manner, Kim ambled onto the train and waved goodbye.

The media blackout imposed on the train as it barreled across China was a train-spotter’s delight. It also allowed a resourceful Japanese TV crew to do the kind of “tabloid” shoe leather journalism that Japan does so well, staking out a strategic place to see a “star.” Amateur sleuths and professional cameramen alike competed to spot the high-security entourage on wheels during its long slog across China.

From the snowy northern border at Dandong to the palm-fringed southern border at Dong Dang, several sightings stand out. There was the expected crossing of the Yalu River Bridge, followed by passage through Jinzhou, but then the unexpected passage via Tianjin instead of Beijing. Kim’s green train was spotted crawling along as a white high-speed train whizzed by in one video shot, a telling contrast of where Korea stands in respect to China on the development scale. 

There was low-light video footage of train’s passage in Yongzhou, Hunan followed by a night shot taken in Guilin in Guangxi Province. Social media buzzed (until censored) with jokes about “little fatty” and complaints, for example, about road closures in Zhengzhou and Changsha. The passage through the hub city of Wuhan was said to have seriously interrupted morning rush hour traffic.

It was when the train reached Nanning, China, that an intrepid cameraman for Tokyo Broadcasting System got a long unobstructed angle on the guarded train platform despite blanket security. The footage, at once remarkable and utterly banal, shows Kim pacing the platform, where he pauses to take a cigarette break. Is this news? It’s revealing that China quickly took pains to make sure this didn’t happen on the return trip, so it's news in the sense that China doesn't welcome exposure and doesn't like its tight wrap on the news to be penetrated.

What’s more, when a controversial tyrant with access to rockets and nuclear bombs cuts through China under the cloak of secrecy, no detail is too small to parse for meaning. Kim is seen striking a match to light his cigarette, but he did not litter, as an imperious dictator or casual smoker might. He takes pains to discard the extinguished match and puts the cigarette in a crystal ashtray.

A show of respect to China? Likely. Kim Yo Jong, the photogenic sister to the youthful, rotund leader, can be seen following her brother like a humble servant, carrying the heavy ashtray. That’s not to say his younger sister is not powerful. Koreans, north and south, take age rank seriously and subordinate behavior is expected and respected in adherence to Confucian norms. And everyone knows the supreme leader can behave on board as he likes, and indeed, state videos show him smoking, carelessly, in the most unlikely places, ranging from kindergartens to missile launch-pads. 

But the Nanning train station is Chinese territory and, though Kim had no expectation of being spotted by a Japanese cameraman, his behavior does show an unusual degree of respect for his Chinese hosts and handlers.  

After traversing China, the blanket of secrecy was lifted and Kim and his hidden entourage had to face the press. Media coverage of his arrival at the Vietnam border amounted to a hectic scrum at the border train station. On a light note, though perhaps not for the hapless man in question, an aide exits the train in a desperate rush to catch up to his dear leader, earning himself the social media sobriquet the “Usain Bolt” of the red carpet.

Train journey over, the seemingly affable Kim entered an armored limo, but rolled down his window, waving to the crowd as vehicle picked up speed, while 12 formally dressed bodyguards trailed on foot, breaking into fast jog to keep up.

The formal summit that followed was a grandiose failure. It offered little more than choreographed receptions, staged pageantry and gala visuals for hotel-bound journalists and hide-bound politicians. In contrast, it was during the blacked-out train journey across China where old-fashioned shoe leather journalism and edgy citizen videos on the go highlighted the real political realignment going on. A tyrant so deferential to his hosts he is afraid to litter?

China has Kim just where it wants him and it shows.