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July 31, 2008

Dinars and Cents

Not for the first time, the debate in the US over Iraq has gotten bogged down in useless carping. The candidates are edging closer to each other's policies on when and whether to pull out of the country, but keep shouting louder about the remaining distinctions.

Instead, a modest suggestion for how to move the debate forward: offer ideas about how to actually make more gains in Iraq. Take the economy. What should the US be doing to help Iraq's economic recovery?

The improved security situation has opened up a chance for economic recovery. The IMF has predicted growth of more than 7%, using heroically low assumptions for oil prices. Other gains include the establishment of a pension system, a sharp reduction in inflation, and huge strides in improving the banking system.

But jobs are still tough to come by. So is electricity. High oil prices are a possible bright spot, but massive amounts of investment are still necessary. Despite the opening of a stock exchange, making just about anything still seems to be a huge challenge.

This isn't just an economics issue (though the material well-being of a country we've invaded and occupied should be a concern in and of itself). There are important security issues at stake. The Christian Science Monitor has reported that US troops are becoming increasingly concerned that the "Sons of Iraq" - the Sunni neighborhood guards that have done the lion's share of the work in pacifying the country over the past year - might begin to abuse their positions, or return to the pay of terrorist groups, if jobs aren't forthcoming. Patronage networks and good old-fashioned corruption are returning, carrying the potential to reignite sectarian conflict.

Senator Obama's Iraq policy page doesn't mention the Iraqi economy. Senator McCain's, to his credit, does, but focuses mostly on laying out goals (like more jobs, social services, etc.). The real question is how you get these things. Microcredit and investment from Iraq's neighbors, as McCain suggests on his site, won't be enough.

U.S. personnel on the ground seem to be doing all that they can to jump-start the economy: the military is funneling money to infrastructure projects and trying to hire locally as much as possible; diplomats are hard at work lobbying for improved investment laws and regulations. But are these efforts enough? Could they benefit from higher-level cheerleading? Should they be redirected? Should we spend more money? Or is the money we're already spending just wasted? What role should investment from foreign oil companies play?

These questions don't have neat, partisan answers. Which means that, by answering them, the candidates, their surrogates, and the pundits could actually move the debate forward a bit. Unfortunately, it also means these questions are unlikely to come up.

July 30, 2008

Surprise! The IOC Capitulates to China

Yesterday, "negotiations" went on between the IOC and Chinese authorities regarding unrestricted internet access for the media covering the Olympics. Today, we know how it all went down.

Just call it an unconditional surrender.

The bullying Chinese government has won the day and once again proved that rules are for suckers and promises are meant for babes. Despite all its previous assurances guaranteeing press freedom, China had no intention of keeping its word at all.

According to the International Herald Tribune:

Since the Olympic Village press center opened Friday, reporters have been unable to access scores of Web pages — among them those that discuss Tibetan issues, Taiwanese independence, the violent crackdown on the protests in Tiananmen Square and the Web sites of Amnesty International, the BBC's Chinese-language news, Radio Free Asia and several Hong Kong newspapers known for their freewheeling political discourse.

The restrictions, which closely resemble the blocks that China places on the Internet for its citizens, undermine sweeping claims by Jacques Rogge, the International Olympic Committee president, that China had agreed to provide free Web access for foreign news media during the Games. Rogge has long argued that one of the main benefits of awarding the Games to Beijing was that the event would make China more open.

"For the first time, foreign media will be able to report freely and publish their work freely in China. There will be no censorship on the Internet," Rogge told Agence France-Presse just two weeks ago.

Rogge and the IOC simply capitulated. Unable to persuade the Chinese Communist regime to stick to its pledge, the IOC just shuffled off and threw up its hands. Unwilling to take a stand at the risk of damaging his brand, Rogge preferred to eat his own word.

With one week to go before the Games, the totalitarian regime has gradually revealed its ferocious fangs. It has proven that it intends to carry out its will with impunity. And so far, no one has dared to challenge it. The IOC could've threatened to pull the Olympics out of Beijing altogether. But taking a page out of Marshal Petain's book: Why fight when it's so much easier just to surrender?

There is but one person with enough clout to at least make Beijing squirm: George W. Bush. Previously I had counseled in favor of Bush attending the Opening Ceremony to provide China some cover for relaxing its death grip on all matters relating to freedom. But in the face of renewed and heightened Chinese intransigence, it's clearly time for Bush to reconsider.

Somebody should resort to the stick after all the carrots are devoured, right?

July 29, 2008

Olympic Press Freedom Still Being Fought

Is Leni Riefenstahl somewhere in the building?

Only fools -- i.e. the International Olympic Committee -- bought into China's promises guaranteeing press freedom during the Beijing Games. There was no reason to ever believe that the Chinese government intended to keep its word once it has the hosting rights secured.

Even as of today, about one week before the Games were to commence, internet access to some of the most basic sites such as Wikipedia is still restricted. While the "Great Firewall" might be removed temporarily around the press center and hotels housing the western media, do not expect such measures to be expanded or long-lasting.

As for the event itself, you will not see any highlights that involve anything political, according to the Sydney Morning Herald:

The other problem foreign media will have is that Beijing Olympic Broadcasting Co Ltd (BOB) is responsible on behalf of the Beijing organising committee for releasing footage of all aspects of the Games, except protests.

Depending on their budgets, Olympic rights holders can put their own cameras into venues but most of the world’s media will rely on the footage BOB provides. Asked this year whether BOB would film and immediately release footage of disputes or protests, a senior executive told the Herald that “Beijing Olympic Broadcasting will do its best to avoid it”. “Why would we [film and release protests]?” the executive said. “We are not a news organisation. We’re there to film the event.”

While it's unclear whether China plans on making a sequel to "Olympia," this much we know: At least the foreign press will have some access and freedom. If you're a Chinese citizen watching this glorious event on your TV at home, you're not going to see anything the state doesn't want you to.

From the Chinese-language, Hong Kong-based Ming Pao:

Chinese authorities have ordered a 10-second broadcast delay to avoid “undesirable” incidents - such as protests or anti-Chinese slogans - being seen by the domestic masses.

The Chinese have learned well. They've now taken NBC's "plausibly live" to a whole new level.

July 28, 2008

March of the Spanish

Carlos Sastre rode up the world's most famous boulevard triumphantly Sunday, the winner of the 2008 Tour de France. As Marcha Real played with l'Arc de Triomphe the backdrop, it marked another Spanish conquest on the world stage.

Yes, it's been quite a sporting year for Spain.

First, the much-maligned Spanish national soccer team breezed through Euro 2008 for its first championship since 1964. Then, wunderkind Rafael Nadal completed the first French-Wimbledon double since 1980 by outlasting Roger Federer in an epic final at the All-England Club. And now Sastre won the Tour -- the second consecutive for Spain.

Throw in Sergio Garcia's victory at the almost-major Players Championship and Alberto Contador's Giro d'Italia win, it's been an unprecedented international success story -- even if us provincial American fans aren't paying attention.

All these victories are bringing the Spanish closer together. After the end of Generalissimo Francisco Franco's iron-fisted reign, Spain has been quite a fractuous nation with the Castillian majority not getting along with the Catalonian and Basque minorities. Separatist aspirations ususally trumped national unity.

But that's changing. La Seleccion was cheered on by more than 70 percent of the Barcelonans, an unheard-of level of support because the Spanish national team typically was viewed as Madrid's team. Nadal, a Majorcan whose native tongue is Catalan, greeted the Spanish royals after his Wimbledon win and draped himself with a Spanish flag.

The famous Marcha Real, perhaps the oldest national anthem in the world, has no words. The joke is that had there been lyrics to the melody, gun fights just might break out depending on the singing individual's preferred regional language. After 2008, maybe the Spanish will work on something they all can sing along with.

July 23, 2008

Cleaning Up Beijing's Air Takes More Than Olympic Effort

Chinese authorities have busied themselves the last couple of weeks in a last-ditch effort to clean up Beijing's foul air. Factories are shut down temporarily. Cars are taken off the roads. Even smoking is now banned in many places.

The result is somewhat improved air quality. But to be fair, Beijing, usually under the overhang of a gray sky, is geographically challenged. Ringed by mountains on three sides and surrounded by industrial plants in nearby cities and provinces, polluted air tends to drift toward Beijing and make itself home.

All that central planning might buy Beijing enough tolerable breathing space to get through the Olympics. But if the Chinese government is actually serious about improving Beijing's nasty air -- instead of just putting on a show -- a more sustained effort is required.

It can be done, though.

Taipei, the city where I was born and raised in and lived until my teenage years, has some of the same geographical handicaps that trouble Beijing. A land-locked basin with hills on all sides, Taipei was an air-pollution death trap. Indeed, my childhood memories were filled with gray skies and lung-busting bad air.

But things have changed quite dramatically over the past decade or so. Much to my amazement, Taipei is now one of the greenest cities in Asia. On a recent trip to China, Hong Kong and Taiwan, about the only place that didn't cause me to suffer an episodic coughing spell was Taipei.

And just to make sure I wasn't hallucinating, it's comforting to know other people were thinking of the same thing.

Beijing can learn much from Taipei's transformation. And in some ways, it's taking the same steps. The mass-transit projects, many of them completed recently, will help. Newly imposed environmental requirements for factories should have an impact, too.

But more important, this has to be more than just a quick-fix. Maybe Beijing's citizens will like what they're breathing now and do their part to mitigate air pollution. The government, meanwhile, has to decide whether it was making an investment in the future or merely paying hush money to get through the day.

I guess we'll find out in the next decade or so.

July 21, 2008

Chinese Ambition? There's More to It

China and Russia settled a territorial dispute Monday when Russia agreed to return Yinlong Island (known as Tarabarov Island in Russian) and half of Heixiazi Island (Bolshoi Ussuriysky) to China. The 67 square miles of territory are on the northeast border with China.

No doubt some would read this as China flexing its growing international muscle. After all, who'd thought Putin and Medvedev's Russia would voluntarily cede its territories, no matter how small.

Besides, the sprouting Chinese presence in the Russian Far East, particularly in Vladivostock, has been viewed with ill ease by ordinary Russians. They're not comforted by the fact that many Chinese continue to refer to the port city by its Mandarin name Haishenwai (海参崴), even though the erstwhile Manchu fishing village has not been under Chinese sovereignty since 1860.

For over a century, Chinese school children were taught that Vladivostock, and a good chunk of the Russian Far East, were given to Czarist Russia in the unequal treaties of Aigun (1858) and Peking (1860). Near the nadir of its existence, a weak Qing Dynasty, fearful of the superior guns and boats of the west, surrendered acres of its ancestral lands without a shot being fired.

As China grew in strength over the last quarter century, the Chinese sought to right some historical wrongs. Flush with cash, China also had the option of settling border disputes without the use of force. The framework of the agreement was first negotiated in 1991 and continued through 2004. On the surface, the Chinese seemed to be getting the better of the Russians.

While the Chinese were busy earning the all-important "face" for the benefit of an increasingly nationalistic populace, Russia got what it wanted, too. For the price of a few small islands on and around the Amur River, Russia got China -- at least the PRC -- to renounce all future claims in the Russian Far East.

But the real worrisome fact from this China-Russia peace fest was just that. Once bitter rivals who fought several border skirmishes along a frozen river, China and Russia, each with its own anti-West ambitions, are closer than ever. Joined by a common desire to check American hegemony, the former communist rivals are putting their differences aside.

Any wonder why these guys are getting along famously at U.N. Security Council meetings?

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