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Global Commentary
Sunday, 17 April 2005
China protests over Japan's new history textbooks
Topic: Politics
Japanese atrocities committed during World War II have not been forgotten by many people in Asia. If the Japanese need reminding of this fact, the recent protests in China over the Japanese government's approval of revamped history textbooks -- which many people think whitewashes those atrocities -- have done just that.

Thousands protest against Japan as China says relations at 'crossroads'
Thousands of people staged violent anti-Japanese rallies across China Saturday in a second weekend of protests as Beijing said relations with its neighbour were at a "crossroads". Onlookers estimated up to 10,000 people marched along Yanan Road in Shanghai towards the Japanese consulate while several thousand others rallied in the eastern city of Hangzhou and similar numbers in Tianjin, southeast of Beijing.

At the consulate in Shanghai, riot police three-deep linked arms to prevent the rowdy crowd from entering the compound as they pelted it with rocks, bottles and paint, smashing windows. Elsewhere in the city, Japanese restaurants, businesses and cars were attacked with rocks and eggs, while a restaurant was completely destroyed. Two Japanese were injured in Shanghai after being surrounded by a group of Chinese, Kyodo news reported citing the Japanese embassy.

More protests, sparked by the Japanese government's approval of revamped history textbooks which Beijing felt made light of the nation's atrocities in World War II, are expected around China Sunday.
Read the full story here.

Glenn Reynolds points to an eyewitness account of the Chinese protest in Shanghai by Ian Hamet, as well as Hamet's analysis of the protest.

While many have described the Chinese reaction as excessive, the Japanese government was surely complicit in instigating the protests by the way it handled its history textbooks even as it was opening up another potential area of dispute with its giant neighbour by preparing to let its companies drill for oil and gas in a part of the East China Sea that is also claimed by China.

Having said that, the Chinese people have tended to be nationalistic and xenophobic, traits that are at least partly fuelled by their own government. To quote from Hamet's analysis:

[The protest] was the payoff of decades of anti-Japanese propaganda in the school systems here. Pretty much anyone you ask will say he hates Japan and the Japanese, and takes personal offense at the way Japanese schools teach World War II. Even if he has Japanese friends. And a Japanese mobile phone. And digicam. And reads manga. And watches anime...

However, people here don't know, or don't care, that Japan today is vastly different than 60-70 years ago. The government there was formed under occupation, and I seriously doubt that anyone outside of China (and possibly Korea) has any fear of a renewal in Japanese military aggression. And if you try to explain that to anyone here, the pretty much discount what you say or get shriekingly angry at you for dismissing their grievances.

Furthermore, one aspect of Chinese culture you don't read much about is a nationwide inferiority complex...
And Chinese nationalism is not just directed at past imperialist transgressors. I had written about the tiff that the Chinese government had with Singapore over a visit to Taiwan -- a relatively minor issue blown out of proportion (see "Lee Hsien Loong's Taiwan visit unleashes storm from China"). This sort of thing gets replayed again and again.

In the meantime, foreign governments can help themselves by avoiding unnecessary provocative action. Japan -- in view of its own past -- probably more so than others.

Posted by lim_cs at 1:49 PM JST | post your comment (0) | link to this post
Monday, 21 March 2005
The China threat
Topic: Politics
Chalmers Johnson, president of the Japan Policy Research Institute, has written an article entitled "The real 'China threat'". In the article, he describes how China's rise in the past few decades is being perceived in the United States as a threat to its dominance.

An important basis for Johnson's position is that historically, the United States, like Britain before it, has had difficulty adjusting to the emergence of new centres of power. In the past century, the United States, with Britain, has fought two world wars to curb the rise of Germany and Japan, and a cold war to thwart Russia.

Now, the United States has turned its attention to China. And where Britain was its close ally in opposing Germany and Russia, Japan is now being seen in the United States as its "proxy in...balancing China". Hence, its repeated requests to Japan to rearm, despite the apprehension of most other Asian countries.

Johnson thinks that President Bush's administration has been actively pursuing a strategy that is hostile towards China's rise. He quoted President Bush as saying that he would do "[w]hatever it takes to help Taiwan defend herself". During its convention in August, the Republican Party proclaimed that "America will help Taiwan defend itself". And in February, President Bush went to Europe where he urged European leaders not to lift their ban on military sales to China.

On 19 February, the United States signed a new military agreement with Japan in which the Taiwan Strait was identified as a "common strategic objective". Johnson describes this as the Bush administration's "most dangerous card".

"Japan had decisively ended six decades of official pacifism by claiming a right to intervene in the Taiwan Strait," he warned. "It is possible that, in the years to come, Taiwan itself may recede in importance to be replaced by even more direct Sino-Japanese confrontations. This would be an ominous development indeed, one that the United States would be responsible for having abetted but would certainly be unable to control."

Johnson is almost certainly correct in saying that the Taiwan issue threatens to drag China, Japan and the United States into military conflict. However, President Bush -- to be fair to him -- is not exactly oblivious to the danger.

Recall that in late 2003, in response to Taiwanese president Chen Shui-bian's proposal to hold a referendum regarding China's missile threat -- a referendum which was widely seen as an attempt to stoke independence sentiment among Taiwanese -- President Bush had reaffirmed the United States' one-China policy and said that he opposed any "unilateral decision to change...the status quo", adding that "the comments and actions made by the leader of Taiwan indicate that he may be willing to make decisions unilaterally to change the status quo -- which we oppose" (see the CNN report "Blunt Bush message for Taiwan").

Nevertheless, Johnson's overall message -- that opposition to China's rise is dangerous and ill-conceived -- is an important one. He asks rhetorically: "Why should China's emergence as a rich, successful country be to the disadvantage of either Japan or the United States?" Then advises with a warning: "The world needs to adjust peacefully to its legitimate claims...while checking unreasonable Chinese efforts to impose its will on the region. Unfortunately, the trend of events in East Asia suggests we may yet see a repetition of the last Sino-Japanese conflict, only this time the US is unlikely to be on the winning side."

Posted by lim_cs at 3:31 PM WST | post your comment (0) | link to this post
Friday, 4 March 2005
Land rights and libertarianism
Topic: Politics
Dan Sullivan has written an essay entitled "Are you a Real Libertarian, or a ROYAL Libertarian?" which provides an interesting take on land and property rights from a libertarianism perspective.

Its basic premise is shown in the following excerpt.

We call ourselves the "party of principle," and we base property rights on the principle that everyone is entitled to the fruits of his labor. Land, however, is not the fruit of anyone's labor, and our system of land tenure is based not on labor, but on decrees of privilege issued from the state, called titles. In fact, the term "real estate" is Middle English (originally French) for "royal state." The "title" to land is the essence of the title of nobility, and the root of noble privilege.

When the state granted land titles to a fraction of the population, it gave that fraction devices with which to levy, and pocket, tolls on the fruits of the labor of others. Those without land privileges must either buy or rent those privileges from the people who received the grants or from their assignees. Thus the state titles enable large landowners to collect a transfer payment, or "free lunch" from the actual land users.
In other words, an individual's state-sanctioned right to land may amount to the denial of the right of others to use the land. This is not consistent with the principles of "real" libertarianism.

The essay focusses on property rights -- particularly on land -- but there are some larger issues involved here that is inherent with libertarianism.

One is the problem of distinguishing between natural rights from state-assigned rights. Libertarianism asserts that the individual should have the right to do what he wants free from state interference. However, when a right that an individual enjoys is actually assigned by the state -- as in the case of land title -- it becomes disingenuous to defend that right under the guise of libertarianism.

The problem is exacerbated when the individual's enjoyment of that right encroaches upon the right of others -- in the case of land, the right of others to use that land. This leads to a conundrum. The tendency for the interests of individuals to come into conflict when individuals insist upon their individual rights means that state intervention is often desirable to manage the exercise of those rights. In such situations, libertarianism -- insofar as it decries state intervention -- can become counter-productive.

Sullivan, nevertheless, tries to find an alternative through intervention by the community instead of the state.

Private communities can be built on explicit contracts (leases) with the citizens, can have internal democratic processes that are vastly superior to electoral democracy, can be far more flexible and free of state intervention, and can be downright profitable (even with trust investors pocketing a mere fraction of the rent). Most of all, dealing with investors is far more pleasant and self-affirming than dealing with politicians.
The problem with this view is that a state is to a large extent a community writ large. There comes a point in size where the distinction between community and state appears arbitrary.

Personally, I doubt that a strict adherence to the principles of libertarianism can provide a satisfactory answer.

Ultimately, I see the value of libertarianism in its emphasis on individual liberty. However, individual liberty is only one human need among many. Libertarianism cannot be an all-encompassing ideology. Libertarians who apply the ideology unswervingly ultimately do no favours to individuals in general.

Posted by lim_cs at 1:44 PM WST | post your comment (0) | link to this post
Tuesday, 15 February 2005
Malaysia invokes Internal Security Act
Topic: Politics
According to the New Straits Times, nine people, including a member of the National Registration Department (NRD), have been arrested under the Internal Security Act (ISA) for alleged involvement in the unlawful issuance of the government smart card or MyKad and identity card receipts.

The newspaper report said that seven of those arrested were Malaysians, one was an Indonesian and another a Hong Kong citizen. A detention order was issued against the Indonesian, who had permanent residence status, while the Hong Kong citizen had been deported.

Another story in the newspaper, which reported on the NRD and the MyKad system and how illegal immigrants were getting counterfeit cards, also mentioned that the ISA was being invoked in the detention of NRD staff because the case "involved people overseas and it was necessary to sever links as well as protect them from possible danger". The "people overseas" may be referring to the Indonesian and Hong Kong citizen arrested. But I think the real concern is with the Indonesian government, with whom the issue of illegal workers is politically sensitive for Malaysia.

However, as has been said many times by various commentators, this tendency to invoke the ISA risks becoming an expedient that allows the government to circumvent the due process of the law and its inherent safeguards on individual rights.

Posted by lim_cs at 2:17 PM WST | post your comment (0) | link to this post
Friday, 11 February 2005
Michael Lewis on Social Security privatisation
Topic: Politics
In a commentary entitled "Bush Offers Social Security Savers a Call Option" in his Bloomberg column, Michael Lewis writes:

The hysterical reactions to President George W. Bush's proposal for private Social Security accounts are a little hard to understand. There's still no plan on the table and it's impossible to know exactly how much financial freedom Bush intends for Americans to enjoy -- how much new risk he plans to introduce into geriatric life.
Actually, the reaction is not that hard to understand once you realise that it is not the actual plan itself that people are against but the rationale for needing such a plan: The claims that Social Security is facing an impending crisis, needs a drastic fix and that private investments provide that fix. Many Americans, especially in the Democratic Party, have already rejected these claims, alleging that they are based on erroneous assumptions. Prof Brad DeLong, for example, criticises the proposal to privatise Social Security regularly on his blog.

However, Lewis has good points to make about the consequences of Social Security privatisation.

The first social consequence will be to turn every American worker into a Wall Street customer... As a result of their own investment decisions, some old people will wind up with more to spend, and some with less. Anyone who winds up with more will of course be delighted, but what happens to the people who wind up with less?

What happens to the aged American on his way to the shuffleboard court who finds that he has, for 40 years, traded in and out of the U.S. stock market at precisely the wrong time, and has squandered a big chunk of his Social Security money?

In theory, he will suffer the consequences of his folly. In theory, he will be forced to sell his Florida condo, store his Viagra, and limp back to work. That's the whole point of the Bush plan: to force Americans to take responsibility for their retirement years. To reduce the average American's dependency on the federal government and increase his stake in the U.S. economy -- and thus, presumably, in capitalism. But in practice, do you believe that will happen?

I don't. Specifically, I don't believe that Americans will ever accept responsibility for their financial decisions.
And he may have a point. As Lewis points out, when things go wrong, Americans tend to sue, not accept responsibility for consequences.

The real effect of any plan that gives Americans the power to invest in the stock market is to grant Americans a free call option on the stock market. If the market rises, the enriched American retiree will congratulate himself on his own wise decisions. But if the stock market falls, or even if it merely stagnates, he'll do what he has to do to get his money back.
Which means that instead of ridding the US government of a liability, Social Security privatisation may potentially be transforming one form of liability into another one that the government is even less financially prepared for.

Posted by lim_cs at 6:08 PM WST | post your comment (0) | link to this post
Tuesday, 11 January 2005
Liberals, conservatives and libertarians
Topic: Politics
Keith Burgess-Jackson, at his blog, suggests that conservatives are pessimistic about people while liberals are optimistic:

Conservatives are pessimists. They believe that human beings are essentially bad (evil, selfish, vain, power-hungry) and that the best we can hope for is that their worst impulses are constrained by religion, the family, community, and the state. Liberals are optimists. They believe that human beings are essentially good but are corrupted by society. If corruption is caused by society, then changing society will free humans to be good. Their innate goodness will shine forth like a diamond. This explains the liberal fervor to change (remake, engineer) society...
Donald Luskin, however, disagrees. He thinks that liberals and conservatives are both pessimists:

I think liberalism regards individuals as weak and flawed, and seeks to use the power of government not to empower them to be virtuous, but to force them to be virtuous... That reining in of individual vice is the same thing that Keith says conservatives seek...

Now libertarians, on the other hand, are the real optimists about individual men. We seek to rein in the coercive power of collectives -- be it church, state, or corporation -- so that the largest possible number of transactions in the society are voluntary and individually determined. That's because we really believe in people -- we want them to make their own voluntary choices, right or wrong, win or lose. The only coercive role of the state is to protect individuals from force and fraud. Beyond that, we're optimists: you're on your own, and you'll do just fine.
I guess there is some logic to Luskin's view that libertarians are optimists about individuals, although one could also argue that in attempting to minimise the role of government, libertarians are also pessimistic about the capacity of the people in government to do good, which means that they are not wholly optimistic about people.

Personally, I think that Burgess-Jackson's view is more consistent with reality: Liberals generally tend to see the good in people, at least as compared to conservatives. Which leads to what I think is a piece of irony.

In the United States, while the Democratic Party represents liberals and the Republican Party represents conservatives, the latter is also usually seen as representing libertarians, whose belief in individual liberty -- one would have thought -- should have aligned them more closely with liberals. It makes for some strange bedfellows -- to say nothing of contradictions -- in the American political scene.

Posted by lim_cs at 2:00 PM WST | post your comment (0) | link to this post
Wednesday, 5 January 2005
Generosity among rich countries
Topic: Politics
In the wake of the tsunami that hit the Indian Ocean on 26 December, some people have criticised rich countries, including the United States, for being less than forthcoming with their aid. For example, United Nations humanitarian aid chief Jan Egeland called rich countries "stingy" (see "President Bush in storm over Indian Ocean tsunami").

Carol Adelman, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and a former assistant administrator of the US Agency for International Development, has come to the defence of US aid efforts. In a New York Times article, she wrote:

[The US] government gives the highest absolute amount in foreign aid -- more than US$16 billion in 2003. And this does not include the cost of our global military presence...or the billions spent on developing medicines that save millions of lives in poorer nations.

Most important, however, Americans generally help people abroad the same way they help people at home: Through private charities, religious organisations, foundations, corporations, universities and money sent to relatives.

In 2000, all this came to more than US$35 billion, more than three times what the government gave. And this does not include giving by local churches or by overseas affiliates of American corporations.

The fact is, foreign aid is being privatised...
Brad Setser, a research associate at the University College of Oxford, puts all this US aid in perspective.

Is the US a generous country?
...I am pretty sure that Carol Adelman did not prove her case in today's New York Times.

Her argument is that aid flows are being privatized, and if you count private giving, the US is more generous than it seems if you look at the $16 billion in official aid the US provided in 2003. $16 billion is between 0.1% and 0.2% of our $11 trillion 2003 GDP -- most governments of large European countries give away twice that in development aid, and some small coutries give away close to full percent of GDP.

By the way, a decent chunk of the $16 billion went to reward our friends and allies, not to the poorest of the poor.

... Assume that [US private aid] grew to $40 billion in 2003. Combined public and private giving -- $56 billion -- would be about 0.5% of US GDP. That's well below the government of Norway's 0.9% of GDP in aid, and not much bigger than the 0.4% that France's government gives away every year.

Don't forget that Europeans give privately too...

[T]he facts are clear: the US is not in Norway's league, or the Netherland's either. Even counting private giving, the US is not a development aid superpower.
Americans have a well-known propensity for self-righteousness. A cold look at the facts, however, sometimes exposes parts of their virtuous self-image as delusions.

Americans are, on the whole, rich. Apart from that, they have the same virtues and vices as the rest of humankind.

Posted by lim_cs at 12:26 PM WST | post your comment (0) | link to this post
Thursday, 30 December 2004
President Bush in storm over Indian Ocean tsunami
Topic: Politics
The tsunami that hit the countries around the Indian Ocean following the earthquake off the coast of the Indonesian island of Sumatra on Sunday, 26 December is now turning out to be one of the greatest natural disasters in recent history. Already, more than 80,000 people have been confirmed dead, with more dead bodies still turning up by the day. Many more people are expected to succumb to disease amid poor sanitary conditions and the presence of rotting corpses.

In the midst of this calamity, when leadership is so important in the coordination of aid to the affected countries, what have we seen from the United States, the greatest power on Earth? Unfortunately, precious little. Little wonder then that United Nations humanitarian aid chief Jan Egeland said that rich countries like the US have been "stingy".

Possibly in response to that remark, President George W. Bush has now announced that the US will be forming a group of countries to lead world relief efforts. Some Americans, however, see the tardiness in taking the lead as unbecoming of the country, and criticise President Bush for his inaction and lack of leadership in the crisis.

For example, the weblog of Brad DeLong, long a vent for criticisms of President Bush, has now seen criticisms over his handling -- or lack of it -- of the crisis. In a post titled "Why Oh Why Are We Ruled by These Idiots? (Moral Leadership Department)", DeLong describes President Bush's behaviour as "bizarre". His readers add their own comments -- excerpts of two below.

[T]his is just one more clear demonstration of the steady and consistent leadership of Bush. No matter what is happening--whether warnings of impending terrorist attack or natural disaster on a scale unknown in our lifetimes--Bush will never, ever interrupt his vacation. His ability to stick to recreation while world-changing events overtake the country is what endears him to red-state voters.

One of the themes that grew out of the September 11 attacks was that the US enjoyed unprecedented sympathy and support from the rest of the world. Subsequently, our government squandered that good will through its actions. Now, a far greater catastrophy has hit the people who live around the Indian Ocean. If we don't give a once sympathetic and supportive world evidence that we reciprocate their good will, what will they think of us?
Let us put things in perspective. The Sunday tsunami has destroyed hundreds of thousands of lives around the Indian Ocean. Any goodwill that President Bush has lost for the US pales in comparison.

Posted by lim_cs at 2:09 PM WST | post your comment (0) | link to this post
Wednesday, 17 November 2004
Colin Powell steps down as secretary of state
Topic: Politics
US Secretary of State Colin Powell has resigned. He will be replaced by national security adviser Condoleezza Rice.

The Washington Post (quoted by Matthew Yglesias) had this to say:

Mr. Powell's departure may well lead to fewer arguments and more consistent action by a second Bush administration as a team of officials closer to Mr. Cheney and Mr. Rumsfeld takes over at the State Department. Yet it is a measure of the stunning absence of accountability under Mr. Bush that it is Mr. Powell who leaves, while the architects of the failed and even disastrous policies he opposed, from postwar Iraq to Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib, remain in office.
Matthew Yglesias's own take on the resignation is that

...Powell is not being let go despite having been right so much as he is being sacked because he was right. Meanwhile, since Don Rumsfeld was wrong, George W. Bush can't fire him, because firing him would be an admission that Rumsfeld was wrong and Bush, therefore, was wrong to side with him.
Interesting point. Does this mean then that President Bush will continue the same foreign policy as in his first term? Not necessarily. Even assuming that it is true that Bush is not willing to publicly acknowledge Rumsfeld's foreign policy mistake by removing him from his appointment, that does not necessarily imply that he has not privately acknowledged it.

Time will tell.

Posted by lim_cs at 10:47 AM WST | post your comment (0) | link to this post
Thursday, 4 November 2004
Democrats let down by flaw in democracy
Topic: Politics
President George W. Bush has won another four years in office. Even before the declaration of his victory, however, Nicholas Kristof had written in the New York Times how the Democratic Party was let down by the very people it was supposed to help.

In the aftermath of the civil war that the United States has just fought, one result is clear: The Democratic Party's first priority should be to reconnect with the American heartland... Mr John Kerry's supporters...should be feeling wretched about the millions of farmers, factory workers and waitresses who ended up voting -- utterly against their own interests -- for Republicans.

One of the Republican Party's major successes over the past few decades has been to persuade many of the working poor to vote for tax breaks for billionaires. Democrats are still effective on bread-and-butter issues such as health care, but they come across in much of America as arrogant and out of touch the moment the discussion shifts to values... To put it another way, Democrats peddle issues, and Republicans sell values...

"The Republicans are smarter," mused Oregon governor Ted Kulongoski, a Democrat. "They've created...these social issues to get the public to stop looking at what's happening to them economically. What we once thought -- that people would vote in their economic self-interest -- is not true, and we Democrats haven't figured out how to deal with that."

To appeal to middle America, Democratic leaders do not need to carry guns to church services and shoot grizzlies on the way. But a starting point would be to shed their inhibitions about talking about faith, and to work more with religious groups. Otherwise, the Democratic Party's efforts to improve the lives of working-class Americans in the long run will be blocked by the very people the Democrats aim to help.
The Democrats' handling of specific issues often score well with the more educated Americans who can understand the complexities of their arguments. However, the rest of the country have trouble understanding these arguments and thus will not be impressed.

This is a reminder of the well known flaw in democracy that people often don't know what is best for them. This makes it difficult for them to effectively exercise their right to vote.

Education, information, freedom of speech -- these are all prerequisites for a properly-functioning democracy. It appears that even in the United States -- the richest and most advanced nation on Earth -- not all of these prerequisites are fully met.

Posted by lim_cs at 11:05 AM WST | post your comment (0) | link to this post

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