Friday, May 16, 2008

Tibet, Mao and the Chinese Communists

The Chinese are a rising economic power. Up until two hundred years ago the Chinese were an advanced civilization that saw little value in the ideas, arts and goods of other civilizations. But in the early 19th century, the Chinese had been somewhat in decline for about a hundred years despite a growing population. Then, throughout the 19th century, a series of misjudgments, rebellions and imperialist inroads from the west and even the rise of Japan hastened the decline until the complete collapse of China's own imperial system. For a brief moment, democracy seemed to flower in the early 20th century but that too collapsed in a long civil war and an era of war lords that lasted almost fifty years until the communist party gained control of China.

These days it's hard to know what to make of China's communist party as it continues its march on the capitalist road with stock markets and billion dollar deals with large multinational corporations (Bloomberg notes some contradictions). The communists have come a long ways from the famous Long March of the early 1930s when Chiang Kai Shek sent an army of 500,000 troops against what were called "hill bandits" in the American press. For the Chinese communist party, the Long March has the status of legend and mythology. We know many of the facts are real but much of the rest is difficult to ascertain. We know the leaders of the communist party and many of their supporters were based in Shanghai until Chiang Kai Shek ended his partnership with them and either exterminated or chased them from the area. Most of them went to Mao's sanctuary several hundred miles to the west. Chiang's Kuomintang Army eventually pursued them and somewhere between 80,000 to 100,000 red army troops escaped from Chiang Kai Shek's encirclement. At first Mao was not even the leader, though eventually he took control. Around ten percent of those on the Long March survived the journey of some six thousand miles. There were many battles and there were times when the red army had to flee with nothing but their rifles and ammunition. They often had to live off the land. Although the red army eventually managed to escape the Kuomintang army, they suffered many additional losses in the far west, particularly in the highlands.

I've always found the animosity of the communists toward the Dalai Lama and Tibetans in general a little odd. Some of it can be explained by Chinese nationalism, the same nationalism we see around the world that pits one group against another, particularly, if the dominant group believes they 'possess' the territory of the minority . Too often, the minority is supposed to be grateful that they are 'left alone,' except that of course they often are not left alone.

I'm not an expert on Tibet or China though I have read a number of books on both. I have seen maps of the Long March and have noticed that the route partly went through the mountains east of what is called the Tibet Autonomous Region. Many Chinese communists died along that part of the route and though many died from the cold, exhaustion and accidents in the mountains or bogs, the survivors claim the local people were often responsible for killing stragglers. I have assumed for a number of years that the animosity towards the local minority groups of the region was somehow translated into animosty toward Lhasa, the capital of Tibet. I suspect now that it's more personal than that.

What we now call Tibet is part of China. But Tibetans were independent during China's decline and have a long history of their own. Their territory extended—somewhat vaguely—throughout the Tibetan Plateau which is an area much larger than the current autonomous region. The May 29, 2008 issue of The New York Review of Books has a map on page 47 that shows where Tibetans recently protested the Chinese rule of Tibet. The majority of protests by Tibetans were Tibetans living outside of the Tibet Autonomous Region on the Tibetan Plateau. If one looks at the map of the protests and a map of the Long March, there is a sad overlap. It is likely that the Chinese communists have been holding a blood grudge for three generations.

The Chinese still have work to do if they are to get beyond their own insular nationalism and assume a useful leadership role in the world of the 21st century.

***Note: For a curious take on Chinese nationalism, see this Washington Post article.

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Thursday, May 15, 2008

The Real Appeasers: Bush and Company

George W. Bush went to a foreign land to launch a political attack against the Democrats. Any number of news sources have broken the story. Here's Think Progress commenting on a CNN story:
While delivering an address before the Israeli parliament commemorating the 60th anniversary of Israel, President Bush said that Sen. Barack Obama and Democrats favor a policy of appeasement toward terrorists. CNN reports that Bush was comparing Obama to “other U.S. leaders back in the run-up to World War II who appeased the Nazis.”

In his speech, Bush said, “As Nazi tanks crossed into Poland in 1939, an American senator declared: ‘Lord, if only I could have talked to Hitler, all of this might have been avoided.’ We have an obligation to call this what it is – the false comfort of appeasement, which has been repeatedly discredited by history.”

The guy who called himself a uniter, not a divider, has broken every bipartisan rule of the last seventy years. The Decider in Chief has led us into a war we did not need in Iraq and failed to prosecute effectively the war in Afghanistan. He is now itching to start a third war to cover up his incompetence. It's too bad there isn't someone at the White House who puts up a new mirror every time a president tries to blame someone else for his blunders; by now the White House would have a thousand images of Bush pointing back at himself. Personally, given his behavior in recent days, I don't think Bush cares anymore. His arrogant and useless behavior will continue until January. The American people should have impeached Bush four years and ten months ago when it not only became obvious that there were no WMDs in Iraq but when it became obvious that the White House had deliberately lied about the evidence. Republicans in Congress failed to apply the US Constitution to a law-breaking president. Sorry, but I would call that appeasement.

Here's the Merriam-Webster definition of 'appease' that applies here: "pacify, conciliate: esp : to buy off (an aggressor) by concessions usu. at the sacrifice of principles." The Republican leaders of Congress in the last eight years have had no principles. If Bush wanted something, no matter how wrong it was, torture, multiple wars, privatization contracts for cronies, the Republicans appeased him.

But the reality gets even worse. In America, there are good responsible businesses and there are bad businesses that are not only greedy but bad for America's democracy and America's long term interests. Bush and his Republican friends in Congress have appeased the worst of American business. I'm talking about guys who could care less about their workers, their customers or their neighbors. Bush and Cheney have both appeased the most anti-social corporations in America: the Enrons, the Halliburtons, the Blackwaters and so on.

The way I see it appeasement is turning your back on the most urgent problems of our era. Those two oil guys, Bush and Cheney, have turned their backs on doing anything about the energy problem. We've known for thirty years that we have a problem. We've known for the last ten years that the problem is getting worse. And Bush and Cheney are too busy appeasing the oil and coal companies to think about tomorrow. Appeasement is about procrastination. It is about putting off until tomorrow what you know has to be done today.

When it comes to global warming, Bush finally admits there's a problem, after seven long years. And his solution? More studies, vague goals, more procrastination. More appeasement of the worst of American business. Time is running out and Bush will end up wasting eight years.

Some may say appeasement is only about foreign policy threats. In other words, don't give in to foreign aggression. But Bush ran away from his foreign policy obligation to pursue Osama bin Laden and instead pursued a personal obsession about Iraq (McCain isn't far behind. He still obsesses about Vietnam). Seven years later, Osama bin Laden is still free. The sad truth is that appeasement is more often a Republican buzz word to cover up incompetence, corruption and flawed policies.

The reality is that Bush has done enormous harm to our national interests. He has alienated our allies and created new enemies. He has refused to talk when diplomacy could have had real value. During the Cold War, diplomacy saved this country from all-out nuclear war with the Soviet Union. And the Soviet Union eventually fell. But the president has done harm in other areas. Above all else, Bush has damaged our economy, making it more difficult to pursue any number of policies. Bush has even outsourced a certain percentage of our national defense requirements to companies in foreign countries. Outsourcing undermines American jobs and American know-how and in a time of crisis it could jeopardize our national defense. Heavy dependence on foreign oil and a lack of a sound energy policy also puts our nation at risk.

Bush's failed presidency and leadership have much to do with perpetuating the worst of American business because—it can't be said often enough—the worst players around are willing to pay for political favors. We used to call it bribery and corruption. The leaders of the Republican Party now call it 'free speech' and 'campaign contributions' even as they exploit every loophole in the law and then more.

Here's a little dose of reality: if elected, John McCain will not be as bad as George W. Bush. He will give us less nonsense. His wars might be more competently fought. His social policies might not be as draconian. His tax policies will not be as ruinous. He may slow down the outsourcing of jobs overseas a touch. And his fantasies will not be as onerous. But our country does not need a little less of George W. Bush. We need a clean break. And we need to put behind us the hysterical claims of right wing Republican politicians in Congress. Look, there's nothing wrong with a little flag waving—we do it every Memorial Day, Fourth of July and Veterans Day. But what is it with right wing politicians and their flag pins while their business friends show what they think of patriotism by overcharging the Pentagon, making shoddy products and putting their obscene profits in offshore accounts? I think most Americans are getting tired of the disconnect.

We need a Washington that belongs to all the people again and not just the loud and the few. The next president is going to have to pay as much attention to Appalachia as New Orleans, as much attention to children as seniors, as much attention to small towns as big cities, as much attention to small businesses as major corporations. Those companies that create the most quality jobs in America should get lots of attention. We're at a point where big business needs to rejoin America and turn its back on the most anti-social elements of the business community.

George W. Bush will go down as the most failed president in American history. He has turned his back repeatedly on opportunities to reform his behavior. I don't know who John McCain really is. Suffice to say that John McCain has three positions for every issue, loves his lobbyists and loves telling TV pundits what they want to hear before going off and doing something else. Americans need much more than that. Hillary Clinton, for one, would make a fine president. But I believe Barack Obama would be a better one. He's a pragmatist, and like John Edwards, he understands the times. Like many of us, he sees what's coming and knows that if we are to have a future, we need to move on.

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Friday, May 02, 2008

Americans Know Something Is Wrong But Have Not Connected All the Dots

Bush's poll ratings are the worst for any president since modern polling began. CNN Political Ticker has the story:
A CNN/Opinion Research Corporation survey released Thursday indicates that 71 percent of the American public disapprove of how Bush his handling his job as president.

"No president has ever had a higher disapproval rating in any CNN or Gallup poll; in fact, this is the first time that any president's disapproval rating has cracked the 70 percent mark," said CNN Polling Director Keating Holland.

The astonishing thing is that 28 percent still believe Bush is doing a good job (if nothing else, at least every American has an opinion these days).

That 71% of the American people know something is wrong and that President Bush is part of the problem is a good sign. However, when I look at the polls and realize Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton each hold only a somewhat insignificant 2 to 10 percent lead over John McCain, it tells me that too many Americans are unable to acknowledge the failures of the Republican Party over the last 27 years. You would never guess from the talk of Republican politicians and pundits that Democrats have been in charge for only 2 of those 27 years and in those two years the Democrats held only a small margin under Bill Clinton. That Congress got some useful things done but it could not undo more than a small part of the damage already done or forestall the damage that would come in the following fourteen years. The three biggest failures—just to name a few—of those 27 years was the failure to develop a serious energy policy, a serious policy to combat global warming and the failure to keep more jobs in the United States.

The Republican philosophy of the last 27 years is not hard to figure out: never take on a responsibility if a profit can be made for wealthy Republicans by doing nothing. We're now paying the price.

The nonsense, however, continues. This time the pandering and nonsense of John McCain is joined by Hillary Clinton who is pushing for a gas tax holiday that will do nothing for the American people except put more money in the pockets of the oil companies and hasten the inevitable. The Gristmill summarizes the ridiculousness of the gas tax holiday:
The gas tax holiday proposed by McCain and Clinton is indefensible. That, of course, is why just about every independent observer has criticized it. The Washington Post and, separately, Huffington Post have catalogued an impressive list of serious critiques, starting with the rather obvious point that in a demand-driven price shock, a gas tax holiday probably won't even save consumers a penny -- it will just enrich the poor, suffering oil companies...


NYT's Paul Krugman calls the idea "pointless" and "disappointing." Tom Friedman labeled the plan "so ridiculous ... it takes your breath away." ...

If Barack Obama falters, John McCain or Hillary Clinton will be the next president of the United States. If Hillary wins the nomination and the election, one can only hope that she and Bill will set aside the nonsense and pandering of the election season and get real. Given McCain's increasing conservatism and rigidity, there is no hope of anything useful getting done in the next four years if he is elected. Time is becoming an issue as the worst president in American history sits on his hand during a series of world crises, one or two of which have been aggravated by his actions or failures to do anything useful.

There are so many big and small crises going on that I got flummoxed the other day when someone asked me about the rice shortage crisis. I knew rice futures were going through the roof but I didn't know exactly why. So I did my homework. Here's one article from Businessweek:
As farmers in the U.S. and Europe plant more corn in place of wheat to produce ethanol, the price of wheat has risen as supplies have tightened. Faced with higher wheat prices, people are substituting rice in their diets, particularly so in Africa. And, of course, the demand for ethanol as an alternative fuel is linked directly to the soaring price of oil. Moreover, the cost of rice production has increased significantly because fertilizer, transportation, and processing costs have shot up along with skyrocketing oil prices...


The majority of rice farmers consume most of what they grow already and plant rice on every available acre of land. What's more, rapid urbanization and, in China, desertification has led to a decrease in the available supply of farmland. The increase in biofuels has encouraged palm oil plantations instead of rice paddies. Also, as incomes rise in the region, people substitute more meat for rice in their diet, which requires more land to raise livestock and produce the same amount of calories.

The story also mentions hoarding and speculation as additional factors. We're discovering everything is interlinked. If we're not careful as we solve a problem with a supposed solution, the repercussions can come around from behind and bite us in the ass. Most people don't understand concepts like ecology which is what a lot of this is about. The young are catching on and ecology will be a big subject for decades to come. We need to be very smart these days and we need people in Washington who are even smarter and are loyal to the American people more than they are to their campaign donors (who insist that they're worth 300 times the annual average income of Americans instead of 250 or even 299).

Tim F. of Balloon Juice puts things into a larger perspective on the food shortages and price hikes around the world. He discusses the connections to the major problems: oil, climate, greater demand for food, the growing taste for meat in new economies and one of the major canaries in the mine: the collapsing fish stocks worldwide. Here's what he says about the oil connection to rising food prices:
We have hit the point where oil stops being an elastic commodity (e.g., production can be upped to meet demand) and switches to a catch-as-catch can resource. Atrios had a post a few days back about how that shift will necessarily make the price of gas go crazy. We won’t see cheap gas again unless the entire planet stops driving or we find a magic spell that turns CO2, water and soot back into light sweet crude. Since modern agriculture has been described as the process by which petroleum is converted into food (fertilizers, harvesting, packaging, transport and most of the other steps depend on hydrocarbons) that can be a real problem.

Read the whole article; he says much more. If articles like these seem depressing, here's something useful the reader can do for a little peace of mind: buy some seeds for a vegetable garden or, if not that, buy some seeds for three or four potted plants on a balconey. There are things that can be done, even if it's on a small scale.

But we're not done here. Truthout had an article by Marie-Beatrice Baudet a few days ago about six crises that we're facing at the moment and several of them are not likely to improve in the near future. Her take is mildly academic and is tied more to economics than the resource problems that are clearly getting worse but one could read her article as a series of warning signs:
Where will history situate the global crisis - the symptoms of which are simultaneously financial, monetary, economic, environmental, and food- and energy-related - which the planet has been undergoing since mid-2007 and which has accelerated this first half of 2008? What will its amplitude on the Richter scale of economic and social earthquakes be? Stronger than that of the Great Depression of 1929? Similar to that of the 1970s, when, just before the first oil shock of 1973 and the second-half-1974 recession, the scientists, industrialists and economists who founded the Club of Rome in 1968 called for an end to growth in the 1972 Meadows Report in order to avoid the exhaustion of the planet's resources between now and the end of the twenty-first century?

I'm fond of the quick picture that graphs can provide and there are six excellent graphs in the story. One point in the article that is obviously on the mark is that many of the problems we now face are driven by noncooperation among the major governments of the world. Just a few years ago there was much more cooperation in world affairs and the leadership for that cooperation came from the United States. But the last seven years have been a debacle. The arrogant attitude of the current White House is harming Americans and harming the world.

As I said, there are things that can be done. Fighting wars we do not need is not one of those things. Electing officials who look like deer in the headlights while they sit on their hands is also not a solution. Even if we foolishly elect another Republican to the White House, there are things individual Americans can do. And the young are beginning to understand it better than most. We need reform. And we need it soon.

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