Saturday, February 29, 2020

CHINA-US: TIT-FOR-TAT LEAVES BOTH A BIT BATTERED




BY PHILIP J CUNNINGHAM

Mike Pompeo is a man on a roll, a negative roll. On March 2, 2020 he imposed, by fiat, arbitrary retaliatory limits on Chinese journalists in the US. Three days later, Pompeo was at it again. “A free press helps expose corruption and protect the people from cover-ups,” he proclaimed.

This is richly ironic in the wake of an impeachment trial brimming with evidence of corruption and cover-ups.

Trump supporters, who don’t seem to mind it when their orange-tinted hero incites hate by calling journalists “the enemy of the people,” generally cheered the announcement.

Anti-China agitators mostly claimed vindication, but even a veteran human rights activist was moved to write: “Petty, short-sighted, and hardly an assist for press freedom anywhere, especially in China.”

Simply put, America’s free-speech advocates were aghast.

Pompeo’s claims on free speech and fair play ring especially hollow given his trampling of the same. He abuses journalists, lacks accountability and looks the other way when his boss rouses crowds to shout “fake news” and “lock’em up” at those who dare to disagree.

Even more horrifying, given the pandemic conditions of the present, is the way the Trump administration has been muzzling scientific experts, lying about statistics and seeking to control the flow of critical public health information. Trump anointed his obsequious Vice-President as coronavirus czar, not because Mike Pence has the expertise, but because, in Trump’s own cavalier words, “he doesn’t have anything else to do.”

Yet Pompeo crows on about the US as a nation that can do no wrong. Never has the cherished idea of “free press” rung so hollow as when emitted by the lips of so undemocratic a public servant.

Pompeo has no moral ground to be preaching anything to anyone. “We lie, we cheat, we steal,” was his mantra at the CIA and he’s continued to be underhanded in his obsessive zeal for hurting China and Iran. When it comes to his tight-lipped, unquestioning support of his boss, he acts like a crime family consiglieri. 



Although coronavirus is the dominant story of the moment, US twitter commentators were quick to chide Pompeo for hollering from his high horse when he deemed denying journalist visas as a means to make Beijing “respect freedom of expression.”

The tweetstorm in reaction, mostly from Americans, was swift and straight from the hip.

-We urge YOU to respect freedom of expression…and while you're at it...resign!

-We urge Beijing to respect freedom of expression even though the Trump administration does all it can not to. Give me a break.

-So capping a foreign media group is giving them freedom of expression? In what universe does that make any sense???

One commentator noted that Pompeo is destroying the law of the land in the USA while demanding that “other countries obey the laws (he’s) decided they should respect.”

Another pundit referred to Pompeo’s groundless firing of upstanding State Department diplomats who got in the way of his corrupt shenanigans in Ukraine, and his subsequent attempt to cover-up the same by bullying NPR journalists who wanted to investigate the story. 

-Have you had a chance to apologize to NPR’s Mary Louis Kelly yet for accusing her of lying? And have you made a public statement thanking Ambassadors Taylor and Yovonavitch for their service and integrity yet?

For a more nuanced discussion of the US-China tit-for-tat strictures being placed journalists, one finds a calming plea for restraint and tolerance in the words of Anthony Kuhn, a long-time China reporter for NPR. He’s a frontline journalist at risk, but he finds no comfort in Pompeo’s rash actions.

“Remind me now, who is the “enemy of the people?” Kuhn slyly asks in reaction to Pompeo’s cap on China journalists.  He adds that weaponizing journalist visas is not a good way to champion press freedom, noting that such an action is unlikely to level the playing field.

Kuhn’s March 2, 2020 post prompted a thoughtful exchange with “Fannyi,” a Twitter handle associated with China literature enthusiast and translator Jim Mahler.

Forgive my stupidity,” Fannyi writes to Kuhn,“but are you arguing for or against the US cap on Chinese journalists?”

Kuhn replies:  I’m arguing that any government that respects press freedoms should stop trying to dictate who can report what where, and instead focus on increasing access for reporters and transparency for the public.”

Fannyi: Then I agree with you. How do you think the US should respond to Chinese expulsion of journalists (if at all)?

Kuhn: Lead by example in dealing with US domestic press. Use US openness as strength, while addressing vulnerabilities.

Fannyi: High sounding words, but lacking in specifics. You're basically saying, do nothing in response to China's ejection of journalists.

Kuhn demurs, offering this policy advice: Stop denying reporters access to US govt. officials and their activities based on their reporting. Stop targeting journalists for harassment at border crossings based on their reporting. Stop condoning violence against journalists, fanning hatred of media, etc., etc.”

But is it enough just to lead by example?

Kuhn holds to his conviction. He concludes that tit-for-tat actions are counter-productive, for they “undermine our advocacy of press freedoms and empower those who violate them.”

Whether it be war, or a high-stakes tit-for-tat diplomatic spat, or more mundane human quarrels, human frailty typically leads both sides to justify their bad behavior by pointing to the other.

But there is another way. Upholding one’s beliefs and acting in accord with them is not inaction but action of a different dimension.

Given the state of crisis the world is in today, and the not inconsiderable possibility of diplomatic collapse, taking the high road is not just a good option, it’s the best way.

Wednesday, February 26, 2020

NEW YORK EDITORS WITH A THING FOR CHINA


 BY PHILIP J CUNNINGHAM
 
With tens of thousands sick and more than two thousand lives lost, among them a growing number of nurses and doctors, medical, the struggle to contain the coronavirus has put China on edge. A recent letter to the Lancet medical journal paints a heart-breaking picture of life inside the containment zone.

It’s understandable that people’s nerves are on edge at a time like this. That’s why the Wall Street Journal’s  “China is the Real Sick Man of Asia” provoked a strong reaction among ordinary citizens and officials alike. Many members of the WSJ reporting staff were also unhappy with this unfriendly and infelicitous “sick man” word choice, and said so, but the editors did not budge.


 
Chinese officials asked for an apology which was not forthcoming. Unfortunately, officialdom's reaction was to kick out three decent rank-and-file WSJ reporters when the hand responsible for the offending headline was sitting pretty in the home office in New York.

Americans take press freedom, including the freedom to insult, quite seriously and most of the time it’s a value worth defending. However, gratuitous insult designed to kick someone when they are down is not easy to defend or forget.

It’s instructional to look at New York Times headlines about China in the past two months, bearing in mind that the home office, not the reporters in the field, pen the headlines in question which includes several op-ed pieces as well.

The headlines are generally much less offensive than the WSJ “sick man” zinger that rattled media relations, but the New York-based editorial touches are distant, insensitive and sometimes arrogant.

While the consistent use of the neutral term “coronavirus” is an editorial improvement over “China flu” and “Wuhan virus” which can be seen elsewhere, the epidemic was cast by the NYT as an essentially Chinese thing from the start.

To Understand the Wuhan Coronavirus, Look to the Epidemic Triangle

Why Did the Coronavirus Outbreak Start in China? 
Let’s talk about the cultural causes of this epidemic.

A Wuhan wet market where wildlife was on sale was initially, and apparently incorrectly, blamed as the outbreak ground zero, but the facts didn’t stop the persistence of the “Chinese eat weird things” trope which exploded on social networks and managed to find its way into mainstream press reports.
                                                               
In Coronavirus, China Weighs Benefits of Buffalo Horn and Other Remedies

As New Coronavirus Spread, China’s Old Habits Delayed Fight

For newspaper hacks back in New York, you can’t go too long without bringing up the iconic Chairman Mao, even though he died nearly half a century ago:

Chairman Mao and Coronavirus: China turns away from seeking truth from facts.

To Tame Coronavirus, Mao-Style Social Control Blankets China

Scientists and serious journalists have long since debunked the “it’s a bio-weapon from the labs in Wuhan” meme, but that doesn’t stop the malicious insinuation from getting repeated.

What’s the Greek rhetorical term for indirectly mocking someone by bringing attention to someone else’s “fringe” theory?

Senator Tom Cotton Repeats Fringe Theory of Coronavirus Origins

As Coronavirus Spreads, So Does Anti-Chinese Sentiment

But wait, there’s more. China’s singular misfortune is to be the nation hardest hit by a virus that knows no nationality, yet it was the nation state that provided a field day for headlines mocking China:

Coronavirus Crisis Exposes Cracks in China’s Facade of Unity

Coronavirus Exposes Core Flaws, and Few Strengths, in China’s Governance

Coronavirus Crisis Shows China’s Governance Failure

In Coronavirus Fight, China Sidelines an Ally: Its Own People

In Coronavirus, a ‘Battle’ That Could Humble China’s Strongman

Coronavirus Spreads, and the World Pays for China’s Dictatorship

The last one was from veteran China-basher, and unabashed self-publicist, Nick Kristoff.

Naturally the NYT headline writers are not exactly adept at seeing through their own smug prejudices. They are quite confident, however, in poking big holes in China’s media.

Coronavirus Weakens China’s Powerful Propaganda Machine

The Coronavirus Story Is Too Big for China to Spin

It’s interesting to note that the pattern of China-bashing themes implicit in the New York Times headlines began to soften when the disease jumped borders to spread to Japan, South Korea, Iran, and Italy. It was no longer a uniquely Chinese problem, and there was more blame to go around. 

Tokyo’s feet of clay were exposed during the debacle of the Diamond Princess cruise ship quarantine. The clumsy attempts to minimize Japan-based cases by refusing to administer tests shows that statistical manipulation is not unknown in democratic nations. Ditto the US, where few test kits are available.

When face to face with an epidemic, human frailty, irrational fear and bureaucratic bungling are universal qualities, as Camus memorialized in his powerful novel, “The Plague.”

Fear has hit the stock market and the world economy is starting to look wobbly. The US Center for Disease Control’s recent clarion call to ready the nation for the epidemic spread of the virus has found the US woefully underfunded and unprepared to deal with a crisis even the fraction of intensity of Wuhan. There are not enough facemasks or testing kits, let alone beds and special equipment.

The bad news was almost immediately counteracted by a tweet from US President Donald Trump who retorted:

Clearly, there's ample work to be done in America, and not just in addressing mental illness in high places. The system isn't working very well.

Let’s hope the New York Times does a more compassionate job of covering the US chapter of the coronavirus tragedy than it’s done so far in China.

Saturday, February 22, 2020

KICKING CHINA WHEN IT'S DOWN

PHILIP J CUNNINGHAM

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is on the warpath again. He continues to serve up propaganda for his cause, speaking loudly and carrying a big stick. His latest "we-are-the-world" junket for team USA took him across Europe and central Asia and, almost as an afterthought, to the continent of Africa, a part of the world notably dissed, dismissed and ignored by President Trump. The subtext of Pompeo's touring on the taxpayer's dime is China, China, China. Forget the good old says of soft-power and winning hearts and minds. Pompeo's got a hard-on for hard-power and it shows.  in the name of countering Chinese influence. 

Pompeo, who has made soundings about a possible shot at being president after Trump, has been showing quasi-clinical signs of megalomania as of late. He didn't last long at the CIA, but long enough to learn a few dirty tricks. An utter failure as a diplomat, he now strives to convert the US State Department into a Langley-style HQ of subversive influence. It's both his bailiwick and fortified watchtower.

On February 18, 2020, Pompeo took aim at the Chinese media, one of the few media empires that will never do his bidding. Still, it's not hard to find fault with state media anywhere, and Chinese media, especially its outreach in English, is outright silly and rarely convincing. To poke fun at China's overseas propaganda push is about as hard as shooting fish in a barrel.  Not that such a sport is to be denied the torch and pitchfork crowd. Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton wrote to Attorney General Robert Barr (another high-end sycophant of Donald Trump) asking that China Daily be investigated for its attempts to present China's point of view and influence American opinion.

What could they possibly be worried about?

As someone who has written for China Daily, I have no illusions about it. At it's best, it gives its young Chinese staff a chance to practice journalism, though journalism is not always possible. It's a paper with little or no influence, distributed mainly to embassy desks, hotel lobbies and a few schools where it functions not as an opinion leader but a cheap way to practice reading English. 

Doesn't the embattled Attorney General Barr have bigger fish to fry than that?

Under Pompeo's direction, the US State Department, which ironically enough, is also in the propaganda biz,  overseeing the pro-US output of Voice of America, Radio Free Asia and countless glossy pamphlets, stipulated that Xinhua, CGTN, China Radio, China Daily and The People’s Daily were henceforth to be technically deemed as "operatives of the Chinese state."

Hello? Anybody there? Like VOA and RFA? (Not to mention CBS, NBC, ABC, CNN and Fox) Is that China's crime? Seeking to share its worldview?

This unusual, unprecedented and basically useless reclassification of Beijing's media mouthpieces is basically toothless, but it reflects a Manichean worldview in which China can do nothing right and the US can do nothing wrong.

The State Department seems as confused by the novel classification as anyone, and it’s not sure if the prickly declaration will adversely affect the ability of Chinese reporters to operate on US soil.  In the very least it burdens China’s state-run media with cumbersome filing requirements and excess red-tape, but Pompeo is not one to shrug from petty provocations.

Pompeo is an equal opportunity abuser of the press, he treats the media with disdain everywhere he goes. He acts as if he’s doing American journalists a favor when he deigns to answer a few innocuous prearranged questions and bristles when real questions get asked. He has verbally attacked and publicly humiliated journalists who mistakenly thought their job was to probe, question, and speak truth to power. He surrounds himself with lackeys and like-minded ideologues and gets abrasive when real questions are asked. 

The Secretary of State even went so far as to administer a map test to NPR reporter Mary Louise Kelly who had the temerity to ask a question about Ukraine, a place where Pompeo’s underhanded activities recently reached fever-pitch. The NPR journalist passed the “map test” with flying colors, disproving his arrogant assertion that Americans didn’t care about Ukraine. He then petulantly punished NPR by barring Michele Kelemen, NPR’s diplomatic correspondent, from scheduled travel with the press corps which is part of her job.

So this pompous man, who got a bad rap for attacking US journalists as a flex his own power, is now having a hissy-fit about the possibility that China's very second-rate media might have a tiny bit of influence.

It's not just the hypocrisy, though, but the timing that makes this full-spectrum war on China odious. Pompeo acts as if he is the acting head of an ugly anti-China cabal that includes Senators Tom Cotton and Marco Rubio. They in turn are supported by the nutjobs at the Washington Free Beacon and other opportunistic right-wing ideologues gunning for a new Cold War if not kinetic battle. 

Pompeo's State Department is just one of several branches of the US government that has a bee in its bonnet about China, starting with a coordinated attack on Huawei, getting off to a blazing start by directing the arrest of Huawei heiress Meng Wanzhou while in Vancouver during airport transit. Then there are various China-scare stories placed in pliant and compliant US media outlets, ranging from hacking stories to back door devices and tainted micro-chips. The US propaganda-meisters are so tone-deaf as to make the sleazy, careless information stealers and abusers at the predatory US company Equifax look like sympathetic "victims" of data loss to Chinese hackers.

Oh, and did I mention South Sea tensions? Not the sea south of America, but the sea south of China.

Pompeo has weaponized US diplomacy by using access to intelligence as a weapon, drawing on his tenure at the CIA to spike his “diplomatic” moves with information power. Knowing secret things about foes and allies alike allows one to subtly blackmail, cajole and coerce. Former FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover perfected the American version of this ancient black art of which Pompeo is clearly a practitioner. 

Pompeo has recently been at odds with Trump, so his tenure at Foggy Bottom could end any time now. His most recent tirades have served to undermine Trump’s basically pro-business agenda, a conflict that broke out into the open on the European leg of his propaganda tour. Pompeo went too far in bullying allies by refusing to share intelligence and otherwise browbeating those who don’t get on board his anti-Huawei, anti-China train.

The joke of Pompeo blowing the whistle on China's state media is that he is not a defender of journalism, but a consummate anti-journalist. 

He uses information to throw shade instead of light, he trades in secrets instead of transparency. He asks journalists to serve his agenda as tools and scribes. He doesn’t want them shining light in dark places. He can’t comprehend the journalist’s penchant to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted. 

The devilish glee and unbecoming eagerness of Pompeo to kick and humiliate China when it has been knocked down by the COVID-19 epidemic is deplorable. 

Beijing is understandably preoccupied with containing, for its own sake and the sake of the world, a terrible contagion of unknown dimensions. That Pompeo chooses a time such as this to double-down on his attack speaks volumes about his character.



Tuesday, February 18, 2020

THE GOOD DOCTOR IWATA



PHILIP J CUNNINGHAM

Iwata Kentaro is the man of the moment. It’s a moment nobody would ever wish for, but when contagion strikes, it’s only right that an infectious disease specialist should step forward.

A doctor in the Division of Infectious Diseases Therapeutics at Kobe University, Dr. Iwata has “battled” Ebola in Africa and SARS in China, he has written books on best practices and has conducted advanced research in therapeutic treatment. When a man with 20-years of experience on a dangerous frontline that nobody in their right mind wants to get close to, talks, people ought to listen.

Iwata Kentaro on "Beyond" cover

What Dr. Iwata has to say about Diamond Princess after going on board to inspect conditions on February 18 is nothing short of shocking.

He is now observing self-quarantine for fear of infecting others, and will miss two weeks of work at his home hospital in Kobe. In a pair of recordings, in Japanese and in English, posted on YouTube, he describes what he saw onboard. The interior of the Diamond Princess was “absolute chaos.” Japanese officials failed to establish red and green zones and went about their business with a “lack of protection” and “eating with gloves on.”   

There was “no safe zone” and he noticed the failure to segregate those infected from others. It was, in his words, “worse than what I observed in Africa” where he worked to stem the spread of Ebola, and scarier than dealing with SARS in China in 2003. 

Basic hand sanitation procedure was ignored, and they were all using smart phones. He cites an egregious breach of infection control practice. A sheet of paper is passed from cabin to cabin to collect passenger signatures. Why is this permitted? The coronavirus is known to persist on smooth surfaces for hours, if not days, yet the signature sheet goes from cabin to cabin, touched by hand after hand.

Why was this not done over the phone? He asks. Of course, that’s the wrong question to ask paper-pushers, and the on-board officials ask him to leave the ship.

He fears that if strict measures are not taken immediately, the contagion will spread, threatening not just those who remain on board but officials and medical staff as well. 




He finishes his home-made recording with a heartfelt plea to “help people inside the ship!” 

(The original recording was removed by Iwata himself from YouTube under pressure to avoid a "misunderstanding" but then restored with other links)

Dr. Iwata’s dedication and bravery shows on several counts. He left the safety and comfort of his home in Kobe to visit the afflicted. He is trained to shield himself from contagious disease, but the uncontrolled environment he discovered on the ship put him at risk. He has now incurred the wrath of Japanese officialdom, which can be hard to bear, as Carlos Ghosn, among others, can attest.

Like most people in Japan, he watched the coronavirus contagion explode from a distance.  

In the weeks following the first troubling news reports about a new SARS-like illness spreading in China’s heartland, Dr. Iwata’s tweets on the topic are both sharp and sympathetic and at times quite technical. He has written numerous books and has hundreds of citations in medical journals.  He wonders if Japan, if it were ever to face such a crisis, would be capable of timely and effective countermeasures.

But he continues to tweet about sport and film as much as medicine through early February, cheering his hometown soccer team, the Vissel Kobe.  He comments on Parasite, Joker and other films nominated for Academy Awards.

He begins to express doubts, even when Japan has only a handful of cases, in an interview with Buzzfeed Japan, published on February 5, 2020.

“The Chinese government's measures against the new coronavirus so far have been largely successful,” he says, noting that it is inevitable that some things will go wrong. He added that blocking the city (Wuhan) was effective in the sense that it reduced the infection rate elsewhere.

He wonders if Japan had the wherewithal to lockdown a city or stop the Shinkansen, and wonders how the Olympics might drive government thinking.

When conditions in Wuhan worsen and Japanese are then evacuated, he is not too worried as long as quarantine is implemented for at least two weeks, but he’s curious to know “the incidence rate as opposed to the infection rate” of each of the returning aircraft.

Dr. Iwata’s tweets about the outbreak get more circumspect and doubtful as Japan becomes home to the second largest concentration of cases outside China.

By mid-February, the Diamond Princess has become a global “hot spot” for the virus.

Driven to understand better what is happening, he travels from Kobe to Yokohama and seeks permission from Japan’s Health Ministry to board the vessel. At first, he is turned down, but he eventually is allowed on board and spends the day of February 18 on the ship.

He finds it odd that Japan doesn’t have a CDC like other countries; after observing the site firsthand, it is painfully obvious that Japan’s Health Ministry isn’t equipped to deal with this, nor are well-meaning members of Japan’s Self-Defense Force.

As Dr. Iwata records his impression from his room in isolation, he coughs several times and seems to be sweating. He has sounded a clarion call to get serious about the threat of Covid-19 at a time of complacency, reminiscent of China’s first reluctant whistle-blower, the now-departed doctor Li Wenliang in Wuhan.


Dr. Li Wenliang of Wuhan
May the good work of Dr. Li Wenliang of Wuhan Central Hospital, Dr. Liu Zhiming of Wuchang Hospital and all others who have fallen to this viral plague not be in vain.

Hopefully good sense, good health and good protective measures will prevail, and politicians will put aside their pride to listen to the experts in order to deal more fairly and efficiently in helping the afflicted.