How we see American politics and society from our vantage in Beijing

Sailor, Statesman, Scholar, Communicator

In the Hutong
Flying between concalls
1042 hrs.

Take a look at this release about the highest-ranking social networker in the U.S. Armed Forces who actually gets it. (Why is he not at SXSW?) The last paragraph was the hook for me. Strategic connections is where strategic communications really moves into the 21st century. Brilliant.

Insights are stock in trade for Admiral James Stavridis. For the past two decades, Stavridis has been one of the Navy’s most outspoken, erudite, risk-taking, and forward-thinking officers, an expert rifle shot with an MALD and a PhD from Fletcher. Keep an eye on him – he’s wrapping up his naval career with his second major command posting in a row (the first naval officer to serve as Supreme Allied Commander, Europe), but Jim Stavridis is going places.

For fans of the literature on leadership, check out Stavridis’ slim but excellent memoir, Destroyer Captain: Lessons of a First Command.

DoD Playing Defense, Again

In the Hutong
Fall cleaning
1448 hrs

Once again it seems like the guardians of data at the Pentagon are raising the cyber-shields. Attempts to access from the Hutong, with and without VPN, are meeting with timeouts.

Not that I blame them, but it’s just sad that the second-largest line-item in the U.S. budget can’t come up with a better way of ferreting out malicious attacks than simply slamming the door on everyone. It is also sad that the Pentagon is losing its opportunity to conduct some decent public diplomacy among the curious Chinese.

Tear down these walls, Secretary Gates, and demand that your cyber-warriors come up with a better approach than simply slamming the fort doors. The best defenses only keep the friendlies out and make the bad guys up their game.

Five Reasons Obama Will Go Slow on China

Starbucks Guomao 1

I thought this was a work day

1133 hrs.

Now that America’s new president is settling into the Oval Office and a few of his key cabinet appointments have been confirmed, some folks here in Beijing are starting to wonder when Obama is going to start making changes to America’s policies toward China.

Don’t hold your breath. For a number of reasons, you should not expect significant changes in the China-US relationship in the near term.

1. New Kids in Town: Obama hit the ground running, but the velocity of initiatives coming first out of the transition team and now the White House belies the complexity of getting a new administration into place. It will be months before all of the President’s appointees are in their offices and operating smoothly with their own teams. Meantime, the West Wing is focused on building momentum on the problems worrying the American people, and sustaining the bipartisan sentiment in the Capital.

2. China was not a Campaign Issue: For a host of reasons, China was not a major issue in the Presidential campaign, allowing Obama a flexibility on China enjoyed by no other president in the past two decades. Able to take a pragmatic rather than ideological approach to US-China relations (Inaugural remarks notwithstanding), the administration can allow its approach to China to be dictated by the role it needs China to play in addressing its more pressing economic, security, and diplomatic challenges.

3. Better Things to Do: Team Obama has plenty of urgent issues on its plate: the financial crisis, the economy, the stimulus program, a new economic system, Iraq, Afghanistan, calming the Middle East, terrorism, and repairing the rift in trans-Atlantic relations wrought by eight years of neo-conservative unilateralism, just to name a few. American policy toward the PRC will be dictated by these issues more than any other factor, meaning that China will be approached once the administration is moving toward solutions on those issues.

4. No Ambassador: There is as yet no U.S. ambassador to China, and to my knowledge the President has named no candidate for the role. Given the extensive approval and briefing process, we probably won’t see Obama’s ambassador presenting his credentials before April, and perhaps not until May. Work will continue at the embassy, but significant new initiatives in the relationship will likely wait for the new ambassador

5. Getting to Know You: Like a couple of fighters sizing each other up in the ring, Hu Jintao, Barack Obama, and their respective administrations are watching each other carefully, making initial contacts, and learning enough about the other side to understand the basis on which the relationship will proceed. This is as it should be. It is no exaggeration to call the Sino-US relationship “the most important bilateral dialogue in the world today,” and as such improving those ties and the fruits thereof demands deliberate care, not headlong haste.

I would bet on six months before we see a significant initiative, and a year before we see state visits. Obama and Hu may well have an initial sit down at a major global conference, but short of that, relations will likely be status-quo ante in the near future.

Recently a diplomat asked me who I thought would be the first senior administration official to visit China. My money is on Defense Secretary Robert Gates. As a carryover from the previous administration, he would be the ideal messenger to talk about how the new team plans to take a more multilateral, inclusive approach to global security than its predecessor, and would signal recognition of the growing role China is and should be playing in addressing piracy, terrorism, nuclear proliferation, and a host of other issues.

@rmack Agrees: Obama’s Outreach to China Should be Social

Jingmi Road, Outbound

Dodging pyrotechnics

1344 hrs.

Former CNN Beijing bureau-chief turned eChina scholar Rebecca MacKinnon published an open letter to U.S. President Barack Obama on the Huffington Post earlier this week, echoing my essay on Obama, China, and Public Diplomacy published in AdAgeChina last November (which I revised and posted here).

Longtime readers of this blog know that while Ms. MacKinnon and I frequently agree on principle, we usually disagree on our approaches to addressing some of China’s more vexing issues, in particular on the matter of Internet censorship.

But on this issue we agree: the new US administration needs to extend its diplomatic outreach to China beyond the nation’s leadership, its foreign affairs apparatus, and elites by reaching out to the Chinese people, and social media is a way to do it.

Beyond the VOA

I recently had an opportunity to listen to a panel of distinguished speakers at George Washington University School of Media and Public Affairs bemoan the decline of the foreign correspondent in news today. The keynote speaker was D. Jeffrey Hirschberg of the Broadcast Board of Governors (the U.S. government agency responsible for Voice of America and all government-funded non-military broadcasting.)

While the BBG’s component broadcasters have been trying to figure out how to use social media tools in its outreach, they have clearly been struggling for effectiveness. I realized halfway through the talk that their efforts to date were either halfhearted (which I think unlikely) or that the shift in thinking required to capture the potential of new media was simply too large for journalist-bureaucrats steeped in an old-media tradition. In fact, I was struck by the similarities between the words and frustrations of the government media leaders and those of their commercial counterparts.

So as much as it might seem to make sense on paper to leave the government’s international social media outreach to the VOA or Radio Free Asia, doing so misses the point. Turning a conversation over to an agency that is seen as the de-facto propaganda arm of the government undermines their credibility and thus their ability to conduct conversations, but more important it limits the scope and effectiveness of the online public diplomacy effort.

Socialize the Aparatchiks!

EVERY office and agency of the federal government needs to be using these tools, and for international outreach that means every section of the State, Commerce, and Defense departments, plus dozens of independent agencies like the BBG. If public diplomacy is to be conducted over social media, we need hundreds, thousands, even tens of thousands of participants on both sides.

In each of those offices, the best approach is to hand responsibility over to people who genuinely understand how to use those tools, and give them the organizational authority to make them effective.

Ten days into the new administration, the White House itself is already setting an example. Not only have they brought in a new, sharp, and young site administrator and completely overhauled the site, they’re also got a Twitter feed, and there is clearly more in the works. We do not as yet have a Blogger-in-Chief per se, but given his agenda, I think we can cut POTUS a little slack on that one.

That said, the site is as yet only available in English (the Spanish language site is a stub, really) and as such is not yet a tool for global outreach.

So the goal must not only be to make the government more accessible to the people, but to make the US government more accessible to the peoples of the world.

And we need to be doing this soon. Because if recent revelations that China is investing US$7 billion in an effort to expand and enhance its global media presence indicate anything, it is that influencing the people of the world – and America – is certainly on Beijing’s mind. Who will win the global contest for hearts and minds depends on more than just media, but America cannot assume it will win that contest without an effort.

Al-Jazeera should be enough to prove that.

A Final Thought

Over the last few days, there have been several comments online remarking how strange it is that Ms. MacKinnon is apparently not yet tenured at the University of Hong Kong, where she is on the faculty of the Journalism and Media Studies Center . Those voices, while well meaning, should keep in mind that at least in the United States, Ms. MacKinnon would normally need 5-6 years as an assistant professor before being able to apply for a tenured position. I would imagine standards are not much different in Hong Kong, and Ms. MacKinnonhas only been at HKU for two.

Nonetheless, the point is well-taken. Again, I disagree with Ms. MacKinnon’s opinions and recommendations far more often than I agree with them, but she plays in essential role in the debate about media in China. While university tenure might be a challenge for someone who has much practical experience but no degrees beyond a B.A., it would reflect badly on the quality of education in Hong Kong and on the independence of the SAR if she were to be denied tenure solely or primarily because her research and public positions cause discomfort in Zhongnanhai.

The Case for a New Public Diplomacy

Starbuck Pacific Place

A quieter, cozier coffee house

1457 hrs.

(Note: I wrote about Obama, China and Public Diplomacy in a Viewpoint piece on November 12 for AdAgeChina. The article is behind a subscription firewall, so I have expanded on, updated and revised it below for the benefit of Silicon Hutong readers.)

Now that Barack Obama has made his key foreign policy appointments, speculation and punditry is now turning to the shape that U.S. foreign policy will take after January 20th. When Barack and Hillary sit down to compare notes, I suspect that getting out of Iraq, staying out of Iran, fixing Afghanistan and North Korea, engineering a new Bretton Woods, and repairing ties across the Atlantic will probably top their lists.

Somewhat further down that list will be America’s relationship with China. Given a full slate of issues, I am sure the President-Elect will be tempted to maintain the status quo, even if that may cause him some ideological discomfort.

I hope he resists that temptation, but not for the reason others might give.

A Different Audience

Since Henry Kissinger’s first secret trip to Beijing in July 1971, the modern history of Sino-American relations has been conducted between U.S. diplomats and political leaders and a relatively small elite in the Chinese government. That same small elite, spread across the Party and the bureaucracy, has directed national policy, editorial bias, and public attitudes toward the United States.

When President-elect Obama is sworn into office, he and his foreign policy team will face a China that is different in subtle but fundamental ways from the China that each of the four past U.S. presidents faced upon entering office.

First, while the government and party remain in control, the means by which decisions are reached is evolving. China is increasingly governed through a process by which consensus is reached among groups and policy makers, or as I like to say “one party, many factions.”

Second, this change has opened a window for groups outside of the government to exert more regular influence on policy making. While China’s leaders and bureaucrats still operate in a system where they are free to ignore public opinion when they forge policy, they are (for a variety of reasons) seeking more input from business leaders, academics, foreign experts, and even the public itself.

Third, this is all taking place in an environment where the role of the web is growing in China, and the permissible scope of discourse is wider than most non-Chinese appreciate.

That all of the above has implications for the way companies do business in China should by now be axiomatic. What has not been explored is its importance to diplomacy. Because what this means is that the cauldron in which perceptions, attitudes, and policies are formed now includes a growing helping of public discourse.

Obama’s China Challenge

This has critical implications for the approach the Obama administration needs to undertake in order strengthen U.S. ties with China, especially as many of the new administration’s actions to address the daunting challenges it faces will be seen as running counter to Chinese interests. The Bush-Paulson Strategic Economic Dialogue was not without value, but it has shown its limitations in the wake of recent events. If Obama is to keep his hard choices from backfiring with China, he must make his case to both the Chinese government and the Chinese people.

And to be sure, Obama will need China. To see how much he will need to forge a true trans-Pacific partnership requires only a quick glance at the list of issues he faces. At the very least, China will be essential in forging a global energy and environmental regime, bringing security to Central Asia, ensuring that Russia remains integrated in the global system, midwifing North Korea’s return to that system (and perhaps its peaceful re-unification with South Korea), and, of course, resolving the current global financial crisis and forming new system to both nurture and regulate international finance.

Speaking to the Chinese People

Conventional diplomacy will form a part of the Obama administration’s effort to enlist that support, as it should. But in the current environment in China and the world, it will not be enough. Once in office, the President-elect and his team will need to undertake an unparalleled effort of public diplomacy to engage China’s wider policy environment. This effort must shun the neo-propagandist tools and tactics of the Cold War, creating instead strategies, approaches, and messages more appropriate to a world rendered naked by the Internet.

That effort needs to be built on a foundation that includes, as a minimum, four fundamental steps that should be implemented by July 2009:

First, the administration must begin the effort to create (simplified) Chinese-language versions of nearly every public-facing U.S. website on an agency-by-agency basis. Some, like the Department of Defense, will and should be limited in their international friendliness. But others, like the Departments of State, Commerce, Treasury, Agriculture, and Transportation have immediate value and applicability in delivering US messages abroad, as does the White House site itself. This effort alone will open channels of communication that have been heretofore closed for no good reason., maybe?

Next, the administration needs to learn how to listen to China’s public voices. While this begins with engaging businesspeople, academics, editors, and other influential types, it has to delve far beyond the elites and find ways to listen to the people of China. Polling won’t work. Far better to find a way to listen to what they are saying to each other, and China’s blogs and online forums are an excellent place to begin. In lieu (or in advance of) creating an office in government to do that, independent contractors could be brought to begin delivering this information quickly and efficiently to every section of government.

Third, as the administration builds the capability to conduct its public diplomacy, it would do well to draw from the toolkit it created to win the election. Banished should be the United States Information Agency (USIA,) the Voice of America, and the feeble attempts to date by the U.S. government to use the Internet as a diplomatic tool. Any government can conduct propaganda. Given our tarnished credibility, America needs to win hearts and minds through engagement, not pronouncement.

This means learning how to make appropriate use of all of the online tools available to the administration that are popular among China’s people. Trying to use tactics that worked in the U.S. would miss the point. Public diplomats must learn how to use the channels frequented by China’s netizens in a way that will seem appropriate to those netizens and to China’s leaders. That means treading lightly.

Finally, the administration must realize that to be effective, American public diplomacy must incorporate a substantial P2P element. Obama’s efforts to enlist the help of all Americans in the changes he advocates would be well directed to an effort to rebuild our frayed reputation. In the long run, it will be the relationships between individual Americans and Chinese that will form the basis for grass-roots support for America in the homes and on the streets of China.

Walk First, then Run

The one impression I do not want to leave is that the administration should rush into this effort with great fanfare, with oversized expectations for near-term wins, or with the desire to create a massive new diplomatic bureaucracy. The art of diplomacy was not created overnight, and the Cold War public diplomacy I refer to above was itself a constantly evolving effort. It will be no different with the new public diplomacy with its new tools, new approaches, and new audiences.

What must happen quickly, though, is to recognize the challenge the U.S. faces in the reconstruction of a badly-damaged global reputation, to understand the value of the Internet and its myriad media in repairing America’s image, to focus on China as perhaps the single most important focus of that campaign (aside, perhaps, from our erstwhile Atlantic allies), and to begin the effort at once on a modest scale.

I have no doubt that this idea will cause discomfort in some of the offices at the new U.S. Embassy on Nu Ren Jie and in the corridors and break rooms of State Department in Foggy Bottom. All the more reason to begin soon, while the new President still basks in the glow of his historic victory.

We’re from the FDA. We’re Here to Help

In the Hutong

Scoffing at pessimism

1952 hrs.

Richard over at AsiaBizBlog (just blogrolled – not sure what took me so long) is less than impressed with the idea that the FDA will open an office in China. He believes, not without justification, that the office will be a non-factor in the effort to improve the quality of China’s exports of non-farm foods, medicines, and medical devices.

Watching the Watchers

I tend to agree. Unless the FDA is prepared to seriously staff-up its efforts, even getting deep access to factories (by no means a given, as Richard points out) will not be enough to regulate the immense and growing flow of consumables out of China and into the U.S.

Where they will help, though, is in certifying and monitoring third-party inspectors, and anything else they can do to help promulgate a quality-control system based on commercial standards and contractual requirements rather than government regulation and inspection.

There are already a decent number of enterprises and organizations engaged in product inspections in China, ranging from massive companies like the SGS Group, to entrepreneurial operations like David Dayton’s Silk Road International, to religious purity inspectors like the Orthodox Union. What is missing is a guardian to watch the guardians, and the FDA would likely be better off spending its time on that effort, and on requiring U.S. importers to show proof of inspection by one of these outfits.

I suspect that over time they will get this (if they don’t already), and that the noises that made by the Secretary of Health and Human Services suggesting his A-Team of eight inspectors were going to personally clean up the collective act of China’s factories were, in fact, nothing more than spin for the home audience.

A Reason to Believe

Richard also noted that the Foreign Ministry is already publicly prevailing on the U.S. to accept certificates issued by the Chinese quality inspection department on goods to be exported to the United States.

It would serve us all well to remember that for a long period after the U.S. discovered a few cases of Mad Cow disease in American beef, the Chinese authorities refused to accept any beef approved by the United States Department of Agriculture until such time as PRC regulators could be convinced that the U.S. system had taken appropriate action to eliminate the danger, and the USDA approval was once again credible.

In the wake of an ongoing sequence of quality issues that have killed and injured far more people than Mad Cow ever did, China needs to appreciate that rebuilding the credibility of its certification authorities will likewise be a process, one that I expect the new FDA offices could assist by observing and providing feedback on the Chinese certification process.

If, however, the FDA receives something less than the full cooperation of Chinese factories and authorities, U.S. acceptance of any Chinese government certification will be a long time coming – even if this gets turned into a political football between Beijing and Washington.

AdAgeChina: Obama, China, and Public Diplomacy

In the Hutong

Using music to tame The Beast

1145 hrs. just posted my Viewpoint article on Obama and public diplomacy. My core point:

If Obama is to keep his hard choices from backfiring with China, he must make his case to both the Chinese government and the Chinese people.

And make no mistake, Obama will need China. One only need look at the issues the new president will face to see how important the help of the PRC will be to his success. At the very least, China will be essential in forging a global energy and environmental regime, bringing security to Central Asia, ensuring that Russia remains integrated in the global system, midwifing North Korea’s return to that system (and perhaps its peaceful re-unification with South Korea), and, of course, resolving the current global financial crisis and forming new system to both nurture and regulate international finance.

Conventional diplomacy will form a part of the effort to enlist that support, but it will not be enough. Instead, Obama and his team will need to undertake an unparalleled effort of public diplomacy, and one that shuns the tools and tactics of the Cold War for strategies, approaches, and messages more appropriate to a world rendered naked by the Internet.

It’s up on the site now, available to subscribers only. If you’re interested in the discussion, let me know. I’m thinking about re-crafting the article into 1 or two expanded blog posts.

Wisdom Before Passion: David Mamet on American Politics

The Silicon Hutong Suite, Singapore
Contemplating a hotel without room service
1822 hrs.

If you are getting caught up in the frenzy of the US elections and all of the triumphalism around Eliot Spitzer’s spectacular self-destruction, you might share my despair at the partisan grease pit back into which American politics are sliding.

David Mamet offers some salve in his article “Why I am No Longer a ‘Brain-Dead Liberal’” in The Village Voice. Mamet makes a reasoned and subtle appeal for a more even-headed approach to the world.

I could probably write a similar article “Why I Am No Longer a ‘Cold-Hearted Conservative’,” but I’d rather read my own political evolution into Mamet’s writing.

A Tale of Two Actresses

In the Hutong
In search of a pain reliever
2027 hrs.

Whatever you may think about the relative merits of entertainers leaping from the screen and onto the world stage, we were treated this week to a profound contrast in the styles and approaches of two young actresses.

Exhibit A is Marion Cotillard, the 32-year-old French actress who won the Academy Award for Best Actress a little over a week ago for her apparently inspired performance as Edith Piaf (yes, I too am a philistine and had to Google it) in La Vie en Rose. In an interview from a year ago broadcast on a French website, she proclaimed that the 9/11 attacks were a hoax manufactured by the US government for political ends, and that the twin towers were demolished because they were obsolete.

Without supporting or debating the veracity of Ms. Cotillard’s claims, suffice to say that we here in the Hutong appreciate a good conspiracy theory in the same way we appreciate good science fiction – great stuff with which to tickle the frontal lobes, maybe even ask a few hard questions. But as most bloggers learn fairly quickly, when one takes a public stand that is in direct opposition to popular perception, one had best be very, very sure of one’s facts and be prepared to support one’s stand through effort and action. Sadly, Ms. Cotillard goes no further than voicing an opinion that begs for support.

Exhibit B is Angelina Jolie, also 32, also an Oscar winner (Best Supporting Actress for 1999’s Girl, Interrupted) who in her capacity as goodwill ambassador for the United Nations High Commission on Refugees decided that rather than snuggle up to the armchair activist crowd, she’d hop on a plane and head for Iraq and see what was going on. From her Thursday op/ed in the Washington Post:

“My visit left me even more deeply convinced that we not only have a moral obligation to help displaced Iraqi families, but also a serious, long-term, national security interest in ending this crisis.”

She continues:

“As for the question of whether the surge is working, I can only state what I witnessed: U.N. staff and those of non-governmental organizations seem to feel they have the right set of circumstances to attempt to scale up their programs. And when I asked the troops if they wanted to go home as soon as possible, they said that they miss home but feel invested in Iraq. They have lost many friends and want to be a part fo the humanitarian progress they now feel is possible.”

Her conclusions are hardly those of an expert, and her focus is exclusively on the issue of the 2.5 million Iraqi refugees for whom she seeks repatriation. More than one pundit has questioned her qualifications to speak on behalf of all of the troops deployed in Iraq. Nonetheless, they are startling because they come from an unexpected source, and because of the inevitable reverberations they will send through celebrity salons on both coasts – not least the circles in which she and husband Brad Pitt circulate.

(For the record, I don’t feel qualified to make a call on Iraq either way, so I won’t.)

Again, leave aside your own opinions on the specific matters at hand. To me what is germane is the difference in approach. Two young women, each given the opportunity because of fame earned on the screen to voice their opinions on larger matters to their audiences, chose to make use of their bully pulpits in incredibly different ways. One chose to make the kind of flippant, uninformed remark more appropriate to a conversation with close friends. The other chose to take the time and risk to journey to someplace she could learn more, then share her thoughts and findings – whatever they’re worth – with others.

Regardless of what you may think about Ms. Jolie, her motivations, the appropriateness of her remarks, or her qualifications to even make them, you must applaud her quest to learn a little something of the subject before volunteering so public an opinion.

A wise old sergeant once told me: “Wolf, opinions are like a**holes: everyone’s got one, and they all stink.”

The only way I would dare to correct that is to say that the more informed your opinion, the less it stinks. That is the lesson I will take from Ms. Cotillard and Ms. Jolie.

Who Got Your Vision?

East Third Ring Road
Dreaming of coffee
0859 hrs.

The one upside to Beijing traffic is that it gives you an opportunity to have some interesting conversations.

This morning’s topic: America and China.

The guy that I was talking to had an interesting theory. He believes that what defines a civilization is the source of its vision.

“In America,” he said, after a long talk about the current presidential race there, “your businessmen have dreams and great vision and operate accordingly. But your leaders are preoccupied with the present, grabbing votes, staying popular.

“In China, it is different,” he went on. “Our government leaders are the ones with the great dreams and vision, and our businessmen are preoccupied with the present, grabbing as much money as they can now, and to hell with the future.”

Like all searing generalizations, this one is suspect. But it deserves some contemplation. What I liked best is what he said next.

“Now, a nation where both the government leaders and the businessmen are people of vision…THAT is a truly great country.”

Innovation: Ferment, not Foment

In the Hutong
It’s quiet…too quiet
1252 hrs.

In a post entitled “R&D in China” that is old but by no means dated, Enterra Solutions’ Steve Angelis (annotating Geoff Dwyer’s excellent roundup piece on innovation in China) takes us on a walk through what stands between China and Hu Jintao’s goal of “independent innovation.”

In so doing, he hones in on what is probably the single most critical – and difficult – challenge: China lacks an academic establishment capable of fostering and driving world-class research.

Both authors note that simply focusing on the research end of the educational process won’t work. From kindergarten through graduate school, emphasis has to shift from neo-Confucian rote learning and theory to “problem solving” and “working as a team.” Not to mention, of course, rewarding true excellence rather than obsequiousness, and teaching and rewarding academic integrity.

Unfortunately, the suggestion that in order to encourage innovation there must be a complete free flow of ideas is a non-starter. That kind of rhetoric scares the hell out of China’s leaders – the minute you suggest educational reform and “free flow of ideas” in the same sentence, you are immediately tuned out. Innovation is nice, they feel, but not at the expense of stability. Return to square one.

Western thinkers are polarizing the issue, and we are doing so for our own selfish reasons. What nobody has suggested is that if free flows of information were allowed – but with some very clear areas where open discussion (i.e., politics, pornography, etc) was restricted – China could build an innovation-fertile culture. There might be, in other words, a middle ground between the Soviet Confucianism that seems to dictate China’s current academic philosophy and the “anything goes” approach popular in U.S. and European universities over the last four decades.

That kind of thinking is repugnant to Westerners. The idea of encouraging a wider – but still limited – flow of ideas and information in China smacks most of us like Chamberlain selling out Czechoslovakia.

The result, however, is a nation that is economically vibrant and academically stagnant, a place where you find the great minds of the nation not in its universities, but in the arrival halls of its international airports, returning from abroad with educations and experience they should have received at home.

Perhaps you are not comforted by the thought of an innovative China: there are plenty of people out there who are secretly happy with China doing the grunt work while others hang on to the intellectual property, and would be quite pleased to see things stay that way.

But we must recognize that our own all-or-nothing political orthodoxy about the flow of information and ideas does nothing to help China find a safe way into its future. If we genuinely want to see the Chinese people – and not just a privileged few – continue to prosper with a reasonable expectation of improving lifestyles, we need to find approaches that will bring Chinese education into the 21st century in a way that invigorates the system without rending the very fabric of Chinese society.

Without Representation

Pacific Century Place
Hiding from the Nokians
1411 hrs.

As I find myself becoming more politically active as an expatriate than I ever was in the United States (well, since college, anyway), I am pleased to see how much logistically simpler it is becoming for Americans living abroad to cast a vote in the coming elections, and how – at least at the party level – our representation is improving.

The Democratic Party, for example, has set up a separate primary for registered Democrats living abroad, and expatriates will have a separate delegation (22 delegates) voting at the convention.

This is an enlightened response to a globalized reality: Americans living overseas have very different issues – and very different takes on major issues – than other voters in their home states, and simply lumping them in with the folks back home only quashes that viewpoint. It is good to see parties recognizing Americans living overseas not as a special interest lobby, but as an entirely separate and diverse constituency.

Given these changes, there is no excuse for so many of my fellow American expats to opt out of the electoral process.

If you are one of those who hold citizenship, live overseas, and don’t vote, think about this:

Get off your fanny and vote. If nothing else, you owe it to the people around the world – and in your country of residence – who are affected by US policies but who get no say in the process. You are voting for the rest of the world as well as for yourself.

It also gets you thinking – the principles on which the Declaration of Independence and Constitution (and, indeed, the Magna Carta) were founded abhor the idea of a people subject to the rule of a sovereign without representation. That’s a fancy way of saying “it’s not right that a government should make decisions that directly affect my life without me having a say in the process.”

There is a reckoning coming, one that will force us to recognize that the Jeffersonian structures on which modern western liberal democracies have been founded are based on principles that globalization is challenging.

A Perspective on Hollywood and Kabalah

In the Hutong
Amidst the Days of Awe
2151 hrs.

At the risk of wearing my faith even more prominently upon my sleeve, a little perspective on the likes of Madonna, Rosie O’Donnell, and others of the Greater Hollywood Kabballah trend-surfers.

I’m what I like to call a “big tent” Jew, referring neither to the prodigious size of my Hawai’ian shirts nor to the length of my tallis, but to my conviction that all present-day Hebrews – be they Reform, Reconstructionist, Conservative, or Orthodox, Chassid or Misnagid, Karaite or Haredi, Observant or Assimilated, B’nei Noach, Converts, Baal Teshuvah or Frum-from-Birth – all of us are members of the same tribe and need to stop sparring with each other.

As far as I stretch that tent, however, I cannot come to include the Hollywood Kabbalists even part way under the tent flap.

It would be another story altogether if they were to say “okay, I want to study Kabbalah and genuinely appreciate it, so I will undertake to do the groundwork necessary to reach a level where I can begin to truly understand it.”

But they don’t say that.

You see, to someone who is Jewish – or even to someone trying really, really hard to be – and is moderately knowledgeable about Judaism, learning Kabballah without years of study of Torah, then Talmud, Midrash, the Rabbinic commentaries, and Shulchan Aruch, is like practicing brain surgery without first studying biology, organic chemistry, physiology, medicine, getting a couple of degrees, serving as an intern, then a resident, and passing your boards. The reasons you don’t jump directly to Kabbalah are at least as strong as not jumping directly to brain surgery.

The problem for the Hollywood Kabbalists is that such a process – which would involve decades of study and a radical change in lifestyle – is too hard. They want all of the rewards right now without putting in the required effort.

So when Madonna tells Israeli President Shimon Peres that she considers herself an Ambassador for Judaism, my response is “sounds good, Mrs. Ritchie. How about actually converting first, and then we talk?”

I mean, at least you could learn what the brain actually looks like before declaring yourself a brain surgeon?

Nations of Outlaws

A Nation of Outlaws: A century ago, that wasn’t China — it was us” by Stephen Mihm, The Boston Globe, August 26, 2007

I have been occasionally branded a “sinopoligist” for my attempts to put some of China’s more niggling problems into historical context.

When people preach self-righteously about corruption in China, for example, I like to note that Teddy Roosevelt spent much of the late 19th century trying to clean up the New York City Police Department and was largely successful at the time. Not that long ago, indeed, especially when you remember that three-quarters of a century later the NYPD was still grappling with persistent corruption throughout its ranks.

But I have never seen or heard a more eloquent or better documented delivery of this argument than the one Professor Stephen Mihm delivers in his Boston Globe article earlier this week. In the moderate tones and evenhanded prose of a professional historian, Dr. Mihm sets aside the passionate polemics of the debate on China and simply tries to put the country’s “bad actor” image into an historical context.

A century ago, he documents, the United States was the world’s “bad actor,” and he recounts America’s transgressions in detail: literary piracy that denied Charles Dickens with royalties on US sales of his books; a food industry that laced milk with plaster powder, flavored beer with a strychnine compound, and cured pickles in copper sulphate; and counterfeiting of luxury apparel, fine liquors, medicines, and even currency.

Mihm’s point is simple: such behavior, manifest in England in the 18th Century, America in the 19th, and now China in the 21st, is a natural outgrowth of capitalism in its adolescence rather than the result of some sort of fundamental flaw in the national character.

Mihm refuses to allow this parallel to morph into an excuse for China’s bad behavior. On the contrary, Mihm suggests, it is a clear indicator that China can and should, and must – become an honest actor on the world stage. It will not do so on its own, he reminds us. China will need to be continuously and appropriately pressed, and business – not politics – is the best lever.

A good read, and I’m ordering Mihm’s new book, A Nation of Counterfeiters.

Extremism in America

Thomas P.M.Barnett, Ph.D., “When did the Daily Kos turn from bully pulpit to just plain bully,”Thomas P.M. Barnettt Weblog, February 21, 2007, 18:13 local

Juliet Eilperin and Michael Grunwald, “The Woman in the Middle: Moderate Democrat Is New Target of Liberal Bloggers, ” The Washington Post, 21 February 2007, p.A1

One of the leading grand strategists of the day – and a lifelong Democrat – is as disgusted as I am by the kind of character assassination in US politics used by the extremists of both parties.

Read Barnett’s post and the WaPo article that got it going.

While this particularly skewers the far left, the far right are no less blameless. What is worse, the lunatic fringe vocal extremes of both parties look determined to hijack their respective primaries in 2008. Why else would McCain, an avoded centrist, be pandering to the Republican Party’s evangelical/neocon/big-business right, and Barack Obama be doing same with the Democratic atheist/hyperliberal/anti-business left?

What we need more of is loud voices from the strong center, people who spoke not just for the deepest of blue and the most crimson of red, but the vast, purplish middle, and people to represent us. I’d love to see a race between two opposing viewpoints of how to improve life for the average Janes and Joes, not just the loudmouthed special interests on both sides.

The only thing we have to fear in 2007 is the specter of extremism that haunts both parties, and that threatens to throw us into an election fought by two extremists.

ATTENTION ALL MODERATES: Get out there and register to vote! The strong middle is all that stands between America and more infantile politics that will get nothing done.

And remember – it’s not just about nominating someone “electable.” It’s about nominating someone who will have the chops to actually develop and drive an agenda with the support of a majority of our elected solons on Capitol Hill.