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China is Not Ready for War? Being Ready is Irrelevant

1 May

Thinking about the world at large, one of my biggest fears is that China will have a military conflict with another country. Over the past few years the territorial issues of the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands and the various disputes in the South China Sea have come to (small) blows more than once. During the tense periods, I have always hoped that cooler heads will prevail. David Wolf draws attention to a report from the Brookings Institution which suggests that China is not prepared for a short, sharp war with Japan, which is slightly encouraging. However, even assuming that the Brookings Institution is correct in it’s analysis, I am suspect that even objectively unprepared military does not necessarily imply that no wars or conflicts will occur. I am reminded of the human tendency to not act rationally, which seems to be a major flaw in the assumption in which one side in any conflict will not attack.

The Chinese Army promotes an image that they are ready for war

The Chinese Army promotes an image that they are ready for war

Having people like Chang Wanquan (Minister of Defense and State Councilor of the People’s Republic of China and a general in the People’s Liberation Army) in charge makes me quake in my boots. From what little I know of him, he seems like a hardliner, because he said “China has indisputable sovereignty over the Diaoyu Islands,” and that China would “make no compromise, no concession, no treaty. The Chinese military can assemble as soon as summoned, fight any battle and win.” I certainly hope that this is a message meant as a moral-boosting message for his own troops, because if the Minister of Defense really does believe that his army is invincible, that spells trouble.

Another possibility for conflict (and potentially war) to occur is due to lack of a strong chain of command. Even if the commanding generals of the PLA are fully believe that war would not be beneficial to China, it is perfectly possible that a lower-ranking officer could start a conflict. I was just reading the Wikipedia page on the first Peloponnesian War, and a particular passage concerning the Battle of Sybota jumped out at me. Athenians were aiding their ally Corcyra in defense against Corinth. Corinth was an ally of Sparta, so it was a fairly sensitive situation, and the Athenians were apparently aware that fighting against Corinth could easily lead to a war with Sparta. Therefore,

the Athenians were instructed not to intervene in the battle unless it was clear that Corinth was going to press onward to invade Corcyra. However, the Athenian warships participated in the battle nevertheless. [emphasis mine]

One doesn’t really need examples from classical Greece to support the idea that commanding officers don’t always have full command. Even people outside of the military structure could start small conflicts. A few years ago there was a Chinese fishing boat that rammed a Japanese Coast Guard boast, creating a bit of a furor, and there were also some Vietnamese fishermen killed by Chinese Naval Police.

Of course, even if the people running the Chinese military don’t believe that war would be beneficial and all of the officers in the military are perfectly calm-headed and obey their orders, a passage from one of my recent favorite books is a good reason to be cautious:

Statesmen are not seers and their actions are taken in contemporary context with no view over the hill. The working out of a crisis takes place in stages without history’s advantage of seeing the event whole and its aftermath too.

It is all too easy to make mistakes, even when you are surrounded by expertise and you have access to excellent information. I vaguely recall hearing in a lecture on Greek civilization that the Athenians thought the Spartans would never fight, since it would be to economically costly. (I’m sure at least one of my readers can give me better details on that)

One final thought is that China might not be the instigator of war. Last time I met with a classmate of mine we disused the potential of environmental issues to cause conflict in Asia. We specifically spoke about water access in India, but I know that there are many other issues in which China’s use of resources causes a shortage of resources in neighboring countries. It might very well turn out that India (with a coalition of Southeast Asian allies) ends up attacking China in order to protect water resources originating high in the Himalayas. Keeping this in mind, perhaps I should build up my expertise on Southeast Asia to prepare for coming conflicts between China and it’s southern neighbors within the next few decades.


The Saddest Movie You’ll Ever See

5 Aug

Olga was sad. Schindler’s List was sad.  Life Is Beautiful was adorable, sweet, and sad. These movies are about the horrors that human beings inflicted upon each other many decades ago, and the ways that people fought back. They are about the ways that people survived and kept their hope alive. But Living with Dead Hearts isn’t about an old evil, some fascistic terror that was defeated generations ago. Living with Dead Hearts is about a pain and suffering that is alive and strong. It tells the story of suffering which strikes at young families and leaves them emotionally empty inside: children are stolen from their parents, and never seen again.

When your child is kidnapped away from you are left without any help, and I can’t even imagine the pain that follows. Just watching the interviews with parents of kidnaped children leaves me shaking and weeping. My eyes are moist now just writing this and thinking about how horrific it must be to lose your child like that. In some parts of the world you could get help from the police and other institutions, but here is a perfect example of a situation in which Chinese police don’t have any incentives to help, so that these parents are left to struggle on their own. This makes the situation all the more desperate, pitiful, and sad.

Charlie Custer‘s Living with Dead Hearts has just been released, and it will make you cry like nothing before. Please share it. Please talk to your co-workers, classmates, or friends about it. Email it to family members and acquaintances. Just mention it in passing if that is all you can manage. Don’t be hopeful, though.

Unless you are a high level official in the Chinese Communist Party, there is not much that you can do about it. You can’t volunteer at a local NGO. You can donate some money to help parents look for their children, but that won’t solve the problem of the traffickers. You can’t petition your congressman because there isn’t a damn thing that he can do to help these people. Unless you are going to write op-eds for a big newspaper, the only thing that you really can do, is to make other people know about this situation, and tell them: “Please don’t adopt a baby from China. It might have a mother that is heartbroken, and you will have no way of knowing.”

If you prefer to read about it rather than to watch it, Charlie Custer wrote a heart-wrenching piece on China file recently, and he also wrote a piece for Foreign Policy several months ago. Charlie Custer is well-respected, and is a core member of the China watcher blogosphere, so feel free to subscribe to his blog.

Living with Dead Hearts Official Trailer from Songhua Films on Vimeo.

Never forget

4 Jun

“Things are good now, China’s huge middle class is relatively content. But if things go sour and the people demand change from their government, don’t think what we saw on June 4, 1989 couldn’t happen again. The party will do absolutely everything it needs to to stay in power. Everything. Never forget.” –Richard Burger, one of my favorite China watchers and bloggers.

I think that I know more about what happened in those weeks than most people know. I wasn’t there, and I haven’t spoken to the participants about it, but I read two or three different books detailing the events leading up to it, I saw the documentary, and I read Zhao ZiYang’s journals detailing the hidden struggles between factions, which had to be smuggled out of China and was only recently published in Hong Kong. A few books and a film don’t make me an expert, but I consider myself fairly knowledgeable about what was going on at that time. I guess that my familiarity with the event, my passion for freedom, and how much I care about China as a whole all contribute to how I feel. There isn’t much that I can do at the moment, but I do hope that things improve within my lifetime. Until then, I’ll just hold the sorrow in my heart, and wish people the strength they need to endure.

8964 from sofunny on Vimeo.

Financial Times piece on Beijing’s hutongs

30 Apr

Beijing City Plan from 2004. The yellow sections are culturally protected areas, most of which is now destroyed.

There is a very nice piece in the Financial Times on Beijing’s hutongs and the struggle of cultural preservation. This has been an ongoing issue in Beijing for the past few years, and anyone who is unfamiliar with the subject can fend nice information at The China Beat, as well as from, and Asia SocietyThe Atlantic has a long and detailed piece which came out some time ago, but still serves as an excellent introduction to anyone knew to the issues of cultural preservation of hutongs in Beijing.

If anyone is curious for  more information, check out The Last Days of Old Beijing, a book by Michael Meyer.