Friday, June 21, 2019


The Osaka G-20 summit will be held inside a vast exhibition center on a dreary, nearly treeless man-made island located in the industrial port area of Osaka, Japan’s third largest city. The physical isolation and limited bridge access of the concrete venue better known for automotive shows is a plus for the complex security and logistics of a summit where some of the most powerful people on the planet will convene at a time of rising tensions. 

Japan takes it security seriously, in ways both circumspect and petty, so not only will it dispatch something close to 30,000 police to man the summit, but it will seal up countless city trash receptacles of the sort that help keep Japan so neat and litter-free with a terse warning that reads:

“Due to special vigilance, Trash box can NOT be used.”

The signage is trilingual with a twist; there’s English and Korean and then there are Chinese characters. The only “Japanese” writing on the sign comes in the form of a truncated notice rendered in large kanji which can be read by readers of Chinese as well. As if to drive home the point that “Chinese” is “Japanese” when used by Japanese in Japan, a longer explanation is offered in Chinese for Chinese at the bottom of the placard, explaining that the sealed-up trash can is not in use, a statement so obvious that it goes without saying in Japanese.

The focus on making foreign languages prominent in the posting is somewhat odd in a prefecture of 8 million Japanese, and it could be said to point to ethnic typecasting, if not outright discrimination, since similar multilingual notices frequently appear in police warnings, convenience stores signs and on security notices, much in the way Spanish is unevenly deployed by US agencies.

The sign’s layered linguistic signature offers a concise demonstration of how history, logistics and politics collide: China, long the culturally-dominant country of the region, bequeathed a writing system, at once beautiful and infuriatingly complex, to its neighbors. Japan respects this legacy, in strictly cultural terms, and continues to use, within proscribed limits, many hundreds of Chinese characters in everyday writing. Korea once did, too, in tandem with its own hangul system, but in recent times, both halves of the peninsula, north and south, independently discarded the use of Chinese ideographs as a show of nationalism. 

The proliferation of trilingual train station signage is recent, and it is more noticeable in the ethnically diverse big cities than in other parts of Japan. While it is a double-edged sword in terms of effect--does it serve to include or exclude?—the intent is charitably understood as an emblem of embracing diversity, a welcome gesture after years of concerted rejection and neglect.  

As for the use of Chinese, which also shows up in dubious public notices and police warnings, many similarly complex historical issues linger under the surface, but unlike Korean, Chinese has a strong claim to being an international language, akin to English.

The Osaka summit will host delegations from over 30 countries, but as the security signage suggests, it’s the China-Japan-Korea nexus that cries for attention in this age of waning US dominance.

The summit expects 30,000 visitors, almost matching the number of police dispatched for the event, so train stations in downtown Osaka will be under the watchful eye of authorities even though the convention center and meeting halls are held on the edge of the city by the bay, not far from the world-class Osaka aquarium.

The G-20 membership includes include Argentina, Australia, Turkey and much of Europe, but all eyes will be on the US and China, two great powers in the midst of a serious trade tiff and perhaps on the cusp off an all-out trade war. But it’s not just a bilateral show, however, and Japan will make its presence and views known with the prerogative of being host.

South Korea will be in attendance, North Korea absent. But China president Xi Jinping’s hurried visit to Pyongyang just days before the summit reinforces the likelihood that the North Korea question will be on the table. 

Beijing-Pyongyang relations took a dive when North Korea, heedless of its big neighbor’s advice, continued to test ballistic missiles and even an atomic device. Since then, Beijing and Washington hold a more-or-less shared vision of denuclearizing North Korea, but have different ideas on how to get there.

The “grand bargain” of the Trump administration is now being pitted against the “suspension for suspension” plan favored by Chinese diplomats which calls for a US war games halt in exchange for a weapons test halt. 

Trump wants no easing of sanctions until the nuclear program is killed, but this kind of all-or-nothing thinking effectively sank the Hanoi summit, whereas China is willing to countenance a loosening of sanctions, including localized cross-border trade and humanitarian aid so long as North Korea takes no provocative steps forward in flexing its military muscle.

Neither the US nor China want North Korea to get between them, but that is exactly where the wily diplomats of the North, seeking a hedge against domination, want to be. There's a provisional autonomy to be found in playing one big power off the other, while studiously ignoring Japan.
The result is a complex imbroglio in which US-China trade, North Korean sanctions and Japan’s fears of proliferation are tangled up in one big knot.

The Osaka summit offers an opportunity to cut the knot. Diplomats could begin to address each of these critical issues on intrinsic merit, but more likely is the possibility of back-room horse-trading, even though the issues at hand are so different they might as well be horses of a different color.

Fresh out of Pyongyang, where he was treated to a sentimental journey of orchestrated crowd frenzy worthy of the Mao era, Xi Jinping will not arrive in Osaka empty-handed. He probably possesses the leverage to arrange an assist on US-North Korea weapon negotiations, likely in exchange for the US president backing down on the ruinous unilateral tariffs impeding bilateral trade. 

Trump, keen on securing a win for his tattered foreign policy, which is additionally burdened by the eruption of military brinkmanship with Iran, might be willing to trade tariffs for nuclear containment so long as the face-saving fiction is maintained and sustained, mainly for his base back home, that he got a good deal.

The Osaka Summit portends to be a meeting of historic import, but it is too soon to say if it will mark the bright sunrise of a new order or the murky sunset of the old one.

Thursday, June 13, 2019


Anti-Extradition protest comes on the tail of Hong Kong's June 4 Tiananmen Vigil


Hong Kongers are not quick to demonstrate, but when they do, whether in solidarity with people elsewhere, or out of the fear of losing autonomy, it’s worth paying attention to.

I first felt the positive force of Hong Kong people power in 1989 after relocating from Beijing to Hong Kong in the aftermath of the Tiananmen crackdown. People in all walks of life showed empathy and concern for what was going on in their big neighbor far, far away up north. In keeping with the traditional practices of mourning, there was a city-wide call to show solidarity with the people of Beijing who were crushed by June 4, 1989 crackdown. It was the largest protest in the history of Hong Kong, involving an estimated 1.5 million participants. Subtropical Hong Kong offers a strikingly different climate and cultural setting from the dry, dusty socialist square where history had been made--after all Hong Kong was best known as a bustling outpost of late empire colonial capitalism--but the passions expressed on the street were alike.

For the last thirty years, Hong Kong has been the only part of China where the victims of the tanks and guns of 1989 could be openly remembered, and just about the only place in the world where the tragedy was annually remembered on a large scale. In subsequent years, I attended candle-lit vigils in Victoria Park, and the memory of the passionate outpouring lingers, despite the alacrity with which Hong Kongers are able to resume their pragmatic, hard-working and business-oriented lives.

It is no mere coincidence that the June 9, 2019 anti-extradition bill demonstration this month took place just days after a peaceful demonstration, the largest in years, remembering the lost martyrs of 1989. These two events, separated by a gulf of three decades almost to the day, are a reminder that unresolved contradictions never really go away, and the initiative, once lost, is hard to recover.

Both events share a common yearning, not to ape the United States or clamor for US-style democracy, but to put forth China’s best version of itself. The pride in being Chinese, and the belief that Chinese are every bit as civilized as anyone else is not diminished by the fact there are unpopular people in power who will do almost anything to cling to it.

Hong Kong and China are indelibly linked by history, culture and economy; although there has been some minor, factional stirring in favor of independence, the point of contention in the really big demonstrations is not a break from being Chinese, but a desire to have a say in one’s future. It comes down to the importance of citizen participation and mutual respect in an imagined community called China.

After June 4, 1989, Hong Kong hearts beat as one with the mainland, despite its de facto independence as a UK colony. But over time the unresolved injustice regarding Tiananmen, which not only went unrecognized, but was whitewashed to the point of being taboo and invisible, has created an unbridgeable perception gap.

In 1997 when Hong Kong reverted to China, there were no massive demonstrations and little weeping. The British, who first secured a foothold in the region as drug dealers and then land-grabbers and renters, with the reluctant acquiescence of desperate and corrupt Qing officials, did eventually institute modern infrastructure, law, bureaucratic innovations and policing practices that have outlived the colonial regime, but Hong Kong, if it ever was in any sense a “child” of Britain, was a neglected child, ultimately abandoned.

The US, as the premier Western influence in the region today, is financially entrenched in HK and uses HK as a secure base from which to conduct China-related business and maintain geopolitical clout. Hong Kong and its Asian neighbors are no strangers to US interference; there’s been soft power projection, hard power kinetics, outright war and everything in between, but it does not go to say that every uprising and every big demonstration is the fruit of foreign meddling, or in CCP parlance, the work of “foreign forces” and “color revolutions.”

The “mother of all demonstrations” at Tiananmen Square is a case in point. It was overwhelmingly local, independent and spontaneous. True, the hands of various Beijing government factions showed early, and true, the media favored the students and there was sympathetic support from outside, most visibly from Hong Kong, as the denouement neared. But actual Western influence was minimal until it came to the end game of calling for the evacuation of citizens, providing refuge and ferrying people out. The US Embassy was in limbo between ambassadors, and, like other Western outposts, playing catch-up from the get-go, trying to make sense of a turn of events no one predicted. During Beijing Spring, the demonstrations transmogrified daily, a march here, a sit-in there, a hunger strike in the Square. The slogans changed too, from calls against nepotism and corruption, to calls for free press, from save the hunger strikers, to hold onto the Square. It was inconsistent and amorphous precisely because it lacked coherent direction either from within or without.

When the Li Peng's Beijing government cried “foreign intervention” it was a futile attempt to misdirect anger rightly directed at the regime itself.

The 2014 Umbrella Movement, though outside the focus of discussion here, was more of a splinter movement than a unifying one. It was, in the carefully-chosen words of veteran Hong Kong journalist educator Ying Chan, “complicated.”

It used the youth of its reputed leaders as a badge of innocence in the same way Carrie Lam has used her tears and her “gentle” gender to deflect from the hard truth of her hard politicking. She has proved scheming and unyielding to the point that her reputation is in tatters.

Martin Lee, a long-time democracy activist with a generally good reputation, muddied the waters by meeting with US Secretary of State Pompeo, a ruthless Machiavellian who was recently engaged in an abortive effort to foment regime change in Venezuela and would probably like to do the same in Iran. This feeds into the inevitable hostile “foreign forces” and “color revolution” trope that is sure to emanate from Beijing party organs.

The potential for violence is at least as great as the likelihood of a peaceful solution. Hong Kong police, who in calmer times enjoyed a favorable reputation akin to British "Bobbies" have been documented engaging in brutal crowd control. Demonstrations are truly hard to manage, but the optics of a heavily-weaponized force shooting tear-gas canisters, ganging up and striking peaceful protesters is never good.

Worse yet could come, in slow motion, or unsuspecting, all of a sudden.

Perhaps the only safe exit left, something that offers face-saving for both sides, is for Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam to exit the stage and for the extradition bill to be put on ice. Reasonable people can disagree about laws, reciprocity and extradition—the US extradites people all the time, and its aggressive bid for Huawei’s Meng Wanzhou and the rogue Australian trapped in the UK, Julian Assange, raises uncomfortable questions. It’s hypocritical for the long arm of Uncle Sam to want it both ways: yes, when the US does it, and no, when China makes a bid to do the same.  

US statements on Hong Kong, including the eloquent words of solidarity from Nancy Pelosi, suggest that the US is doubling down on the status quo wherein the US makes the rules and goes after others for not following them.

President Trump, always a bit out of sync with the other members of the political class, and not always in a bad way, hit an oddly optimistic note, saying he thinks “they’ll be able to work it out.”

That would be for the best, of course, but only time will tell.

Sunday, June 9, 2019


by Philip J Cunningham

Trump brazenly slapped China with punitive tariffs despite a weak grasp of economics, not so much to fix things or even signal the start of a new Cold War, but to make a dramatic play for all the world to see, especially his fan-base. See what I can do? How do you like that?
With each provocative play, he buys glee from his fans, notoriety for himself, confusion for his rivals and, importantly, in the case of a possibly ruinous trade war, he throws up a dust cloud that creates the time and space to disguise a retreat. That his policies are injurious to the nation as a whole, including his rhetoric-addled followers, merits no self-reflection.
Over and again we have since Trump’s dynamic “art of the deal” in action. While careless, impetuous and impulsive decision-making by the US president is not without consequence, his word is never the last word on a subject because he’s always changing his mind.
Any decent used car dealer and carpet merchant knows the dynamic: throw down the gauntlet with an outrageous opening bid, then cajole, wheel, deal and back-peddle, bringing it down to a point where a bad deal starts to look like a bargain even though it probably is not. 
When it comes to diplomacy, Trump is famous for ignoring intelligence briefings, fact books and the best advice available in favor of “going by his gut.” He says so himself. The results can be surprisingly effective, at least in the short run, because who knows what’s in his erratic mind? One only need only to review the president’s voluminous collection of tweets to note that he contradicts himself left and right, going through several good-cop, bad-cop mood shifts in the course of a day.
China’s America-handlers recognized a transactional side to Trump’s apparent madness and seized on this as an opportunity in crisis. To China’s sophisticated, and sometimes ruthless diplomatic corps, Trump’s childish grandiosity presented a plus, as found in dealing with certain erratic, over-the-top African dictators; never mind the peacock feathers and preening egos if the deal gets done. China has a long record of dealing coolly with inequitable foreign regimes, thus the telling willingness to coddle the bombastic Trump right from the start.
While it proved facile, and unduly revealing of local practices, for Chinese deal-makers to think that giving concessions to the “princelings” in Trump’s orbit would win the day, the thrust of Beijing’s business-like approach was not far off the mark. Problem is, as greedy as Trump is when it comes to money, he’s even bigger on brand, brand Trump that is.
What to do with such a man, essentially an emperor without clothes, who parades in front of the media mirror, ridiculous and exposed, thinking the world should think of him as he thinks of himself?
He is perhaps the most dangerous and belligerent president in history in terms of careless rhetoric, and as his friend Howard Stern concedes, the man needs some serious counseling.
A draft dodger at heart, he doesn’t like war and there’s something to be said for that. There’s a hidden weakness there, or perhaps it might better be called a hidden strength. 
Trump has not taken the US to war, unlike his presidential predecessors Bush Sr, Bill Clinton, Bush Jr and Barack Obama (with a strong push from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on the Libya question) He’s backed off from conflict with Venezuela and Iran, and is loath to confront North Korea. Although he’s done Israel's bidding in the Mideast to a degree, he shirks from war with Syria or any other state actor.
That is not to say it does not give fright to listen to him speak. He taunts, jousts, feints, stabs and likes to brag, and admittedly he is of a perverse bent that would allow for the use scare tactics to mix it up and even bring the nation to the brink of war, if only for the sadistic pleasure of making the other side blink. But the world is basically at peace and global economies are basically beneficiaries of robust trade, and though some retrenchment seems inevitable now, the man’s bark has proved worse than his bite.
What the world needs to understand is that they are not dealing with a statesman, a weekend warrior or a man of ideas. They are dealing with a con from Queens with a chip on his shoulder, forever trying to prove himself Manhattan-worthy, a real estate developer who built a house of cards on bluster, brinkmanship and bankruptcy.
Lacking any coherent ideology, vision or backbone, Trump has shown an uncanny ability to stay at the top of the news cycle by playing each moment at the whim of the moment. His memory is short-term and inexact, which is not as bad as it sounds because it allows him to reverse course as necessary. Lack of consistency and apparent loss of face does not really come into it because he is skillful at suggesting, not entirely unconvincingly, that everything he does, good, bad and middling, is part of the deal.
The sudden reversal of apocalyptic threats against Mexico, and a return to something very close to the status quo before the dust-up is a case in point. Trump's tendency to bluff, cave in, fold and announce himself the winner is well-documented.There is a pattern to his reckless, relentless shock treatment. You create a problem where one didn’t exist, causing much ink to be spilled, airwaves to be filled with fear, and pundits to be preaching the end, then you grandly offer your services to broker a deal, a deal to undo the damage you did, and declare a victory. Rinse and repeat.
As hard as it might be to get the genie of economic nationalism back in the bottle once resentments are whipped up on both sides of the Pacific, redirection is still possible at the top. Trump is actually well-positioned, and of a disposition, to extract himself from protracted economic warfare with China by making unexpected concessions, dressed up to look like points scored. His hardcore followers are primed to believe the most outlandish things, but it has to involve optics of his liking, so a successful Osaka meeting in late June will have to have a Mar-a-Lago equivalent of the “most beautiful piece of chocolate cake you’ve ever seen.”
A hotel impresario, par excellence.
The trade war might yet teeter out of control. But if Trump can be roped in by the tangle of his own lies and contradictions, the damage can be limited, even reversed. He’s predictably unpredictable, consistent in his inconsistencies, rewriting facts and redrawing lines to keep himself center stage under the lights. The best you can say about his presidency is that “if you don’t like it, wait until he changes,” because he gets bored easily and is always looking for a new drama to take a star turn in.
Not what the world, or most Americans, for that matter, want from the White House, but it’s what we got.  

Monday, June 3, 2019


Like a distant but powerful gravity wave, the ripples from the cataclysm of June 4, 1989 can be felt today. Pens and paintbrushes, musical  chords and moving pictures triumph over the rumble of the tanks to memorialize and celebrate the eternal victory of art over war.

Available at Rowman&Littlefield
Ways to remember
Philip Cunningham says until the day the tragedy of June 4 can be openly mourned in China and the life-affirming spirit of the movement honoured, we must keep alive those memories 

(reprint from South China Morning Post on 25th anniversary)

There are 108 ways of remembering 1989, like the little beads on a prayer string; simple, humble, tactile reminders of the days when Beijing was a city of hope, caught in the throes of a peaceful uprising.

When I'm in Beijing in the spring, I like to walk up and down Changan Boulevard and across Tiananmen Square, to pause, reflect and move on. It's a private way of remembering, but I know I am not alone.

Everybody lost and nobody won when the tanks rolled in on June 4, 1989 to crush a peaceful, creative and remarkably harmonious uprising. And while it's hard to be patient with the long years of official silence, it's also difficult to stay true to the truth. There has been a tendency over the years to cast China's unique tragedy into a Manichean struggle of good versus evil, in which US-style democracy humiliates Chinese communism, or the west wind prevails over the east wind, or the BBC beats CCTV and CNN beats Xinhua, but such binary formulations lose the thread of the movement, its deep roots, rich tones and infinite nuance.

One day, it will be possible for a million to gather in Tiananmen Square to reflect on the events of 1989 and openly mourn the lives lost, but that day has not yet come. To fight historic injustice with hate, revenge or triumphalism would not only be unwise in a tactical sense, playing into the hands of hardliners on both sides, but it would also betray the original spirit of the inclusive, transformative and life-affirming movement.

There was much about the uprising that was idiosyncratic to China and resonant with the best of the communist tradition. Until the unlucky and unnecessary denouement, there was admirable restraint, broad-mindedness and pluck on all sides. There were moments when the Chinese press offered superior coverage to that of the foreign TV personalities, most of whom were jet-lagged, hotel-bound and unable to communicate in Chinese.
Then the walls of martial law came crashing down, the crackdown ensued and a hapless handful of foreigners were left to run with a story of vital interest to a billion people.

China needs to reclaim this magnificent and tragic chapter of history as its own, and the day when it will do so is inching closer. A good first step would be to permit the dead to be appropriately mourned by their kith and kin and for peaceful annual observances to take place.

There are questions of "face" for those who supported the ruthless crackdown out of fear or opportunism, but their vanity cannot be protected forever at the expense of the truth.

One would like to think that Xi Jinping can make a difference, and perhaps he will. This year is the first anniversary under the leadership of a man whose father, Xi Zhongxun, took a courageous stand against the 1989 crackdown in the twilight of his career. But Beijing is beset by ruthless factionalism and there are power brokers in the party who continue to stand up for the men who stood on the wrong side of history, so even Xi won't find it easy going.

With media discussion banned and comment kept off the record, the truth resides in the minds of people, like the books committed to memory in the face of book-burning in Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451. But memories do fade and propaganda does sow seeds of doubt. Lies repeated often enough take on a baleful life of their own and counterfactual arguments continue to contort and confuse, so it's essential to keep flexing and exercising those precious memories until the day they can be printed in Chinese newspapers, broadcast on Chinese TV and engraved in stone at memorials for the fallen.

As for the 108 ways to remember, I will mention a few "memory beads" that come to mind, leaving it to readers to construct their own karmic bracelets.

Consider the double-edged power of words by studying the April 26 People's Daily editorial that drew the lines of conflict.

Ride a bicycle. It's a reminder that back in 1989 nearly everyone got around by pedal power, not cars. The May 10, 1989 demonstration of "ten thousand bicycles" racing to the square was the kind of simple fun people enjoyed in simpler times.

The week starting May 13, 1989 saw an emotional mass hunger strike led by a generation of students born during one of the most tragic famines in world history. Skip a few meals in symbolic solidarity.

Learn the lyrics to The Internationale in another language. Or hum Beethoven's Ode to Joy.
Buy a newspaper or write a letter to the editor, showing support for the gutsy journalism being practised then, as now, under less-than-ideal conditions.

Read something by Fang Lizhi, Liu Xiaobo or Wang Dan.

Listen to music. Hou Dejian's Descendants of the Dragon, Cui Jian's Nothing to My Name and Chyi Chin's Wolf all evoke memories of the time.

Watch a bootleg copy of The Gate of Heavenly Peace.

Talk about it with someone who was there.
On June 3, light a candle to remember the innocent civilians and unarmed protesters cut down in their prime.

Find a moment to mourn the dead soldiers, too. They were young, confused, afraid and not in control of their fate.

Think of the man standing in front of the tank when crossing a busy intersection.

On June 4, if you are in Beijing, take a long solitary walk across town and visit the people's square, knowing it will one day be possible to do so in the company of others.

These are just a few little rituals of remembrance that are possible in China.
Hong Kong people have their own unique and vibrant way of commemorating, and that tradition should be upheld, not just in solidarity with Beijing 1989, but as a statement about what Hong Kong is, and should continue to be, in terms of its role as a stronghold of free expression.

Philip J. Cunningham is a media researcher and freelance writer, whose most recent book about China is Tiananmen Moon

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Ways to remember