Tuesday, January 30, 2007

You Can Take The Boy Out Of Hollywood . . . .

Hong Kong, China

BBC World was reporting live from the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, but I didn’t hear the location. I just looked up and saw Homeland Security secretary Michael Chertoff being interviewed while wearing a bulky winter coat with his frozen breath visible as he talked. Behind him, mountains were covered with snow.

Like anybody who’s worked in the entertainment industry too long, the first thing I thought was “What’s Michael Chertoff doing at Sundance?”


The Han Empire

Hong Kong, China

I have been in the People’s Republic of China since November 15, but I have spent only 40 of those 77 days in “China.” For the traveler, the People’s Republic is actually four separate jurisdictions, each with its own immigration and travel rules, yet all ultimately answering to the national government in Beijing.

The People’s Republic of China (P.R.C.) is composed of four travel areas:

1. Hong Kong,

2. Macau,

3. Tibet, and

4. Mainland China.

Hong Kong

Hong Kong is a former British colony, a city of more than 7 million Cantonese-speaking Chinese and more than 100,000 Anglophone expatriates. Hong Kong is the capital of Asia’s financial and media industries, in which most of the expats work, and it is one of the wealthiest cities in the world. The impossible wall of gleaming skyscrapers on Hong Kong Island, framed by blue water and green hills, was famously described by travel writer Pico Iyer as “a dream of Manhattan, arising from the South China Sea.”

Hongkongers are the Free Chinese. Hongkongers can read independent newspapers, purchase books by the Dalai Lama, attend an Easter Mass conducted by a cardinal appointed by the Pope, say and write what they want about politics and, most upsetting to the powers in the north capital of Beijing, vote in local elections (although the system stops short of true democracy). These freedoms were secured by the British in the Joint Declaration, the 1984 treaty by which the United Kingdom agreed to retrocede Hong Kong to China.

Hong Kong is not a province of China but a “Special Administrative Region” which enjoys, in the words of the Joint Declaration, “a high degree of autonomy.” On paper, the national government’s role is limited to foreign affairs and national defense. In reality, Beijing exerts a wider sphere of influence behind closed doors.

Hong Kong was founded by the British in 1842 as a free port, a place where merchants of every nationality could conduct business. This is still largely true. Hong Kong, not Beijing, controls immigration into the city, and almost anyone can obtain a visa to enter Hong Kong for business or pleasure. U.S. citizens are granted 90 days as a matter of course.

The Chinese national government in Beijing prohibits citizens of mainland China from entering Hong Kong without special permission in the form of an “exit endorsement” issued by the Public Security Bureau, the national police force. Mainland Chinese who live in the larger cities can apply for an individual visit visa, while all other Chinese can only visit Hong Kong on chaperoned tours, if permission is granted.


Macau is a one-hour ferry ride from Hong Kong, and you go there to gamble and get laid. The tiny former Portuguese colony, retroceded to China in 1999, is also a Special Administrative Region that enjoys a “high degree of autonomy,” but the freedoms in Macau are focused on vice.

Macau is the Las Vegas of the Chinese-speaking world, with 24 casinos in operation and several more scheduled to open within the next two years. That being said, Macau is downtown Vegas, not the Strip. Most of the casinos are low-end affairs, and the town itself is a weary Chinese slum, albeit with fascinating pockets of European architecture.

Whereas the hotels and casinos in Vegas pretend to keep prostitution at arm’s length, some of the hotels and casinos in Macau offer working girls as part of the package. Many of the older Chinese casinos have brothels inside them, so you step on the elevator and select from the casino on Floor 1 or the “sauna” on Floor 4 or the “nightclub” on the top floor. It’s refreshingly honest.

Entering Macau is a breeze – the casinos have seen to that. Most nationalities are stamped in at Immigration. U.S. citizens receive 30 days, which, like Vegas, is about 10 times longer than you’d want to stay.


After a weekend of sin in Macau, you may wish to atone by visiting the Buddhist monasteries of Tibet. Easier said than done.

The Chinese government is paranoid about Tibet and about the Western world’s interest in Tibetan autonomy, which Beijing considers to be an internal matter that is none of the world’s business. So the Chinese government makes would-be Tibetan travelers jump through expensive and confusing hoops.

At a minimum, travelers to Tibet must obtain a standard China visa from a P.R.C. embassy or consulate and a Tibet Travel Permit (TTP) from a licensed travel agent. The TTP only allows the traveler to visit the Tibetan capital of Lhasa and other “open areas.” To visit any other locations within Tibet, the traveler needs to secure an Alien’s Travel Permit (ATP), which is issued by the Public Security Bureau but which is usually obtained from the travel agent. In addition, travel to the areas of Ngari, Nyingchi and Nagqu require a Military Permit issued by the men in uniform.

The decision by the Chinese government to require travel agencies to act as the middlemen in the issuance of TTPs and ATPs has created a predictable headache: it’s difficult to differentiate between the true legal requirements (which are subject to constant change) and what the travel agency happens to be selling (which the travel agency will state or imply is a legal requirement). Thus, it’s not unusual for a travel agent to say that the law requires all travelers to Tibet to purchase a tour (true) with a minimum numbers of persons (false) and with a mandatory driver and guide (false within Lhasa). Travel to Tibet is the subject of more misinformation than travel to any other destination, and it’s all because the Chinese government has entrusted the interpretation and application of complicated, fluid regulations to a bunch of self-serving travel agents.

By the time you’ve jumped through all the hoops, you’ve contributed hundreds of dollars to the Chinese government and to the ethnic Han Chinese who are purposefully populating Tibet to dilute the local Tibetan population. Consequently, there is a fair amount of debate as to whether travel to Tibet helps or hinders the Tibetan people. The Dalai Lama’s position is that travelers should visit Tibet and tell the world what they see.

Mainland China

Everything else is “the mainland,” that part of China which is directly under the control of the Beijing government and which can be accessed by the traveler with the purchase of a standard China visa. Everything in "China" -- from Hainen Island in the south to Harbin in the far northeast, from Shanghai on the east coast to Tacheng on the Kazakh border -- is open for tourism.

Except when it isn’t. At any time, you can be traveling and be told by military or security personnel that your road or destination is not open to foreigners. Hotels and guesthouses need a special permit to lodge foreigners, so it’s common to walk into a desolate hotel and be told “No rooms.” They mean “No rooms for you.”

Travel to Xinjiang Province in the far northwest – which most Westerns have never heard of – sends the Beijing government into paroxysms of paranoia. The province is home to about 8.3 million Muslim Uighurs, who would much rather declare their own country. Beijing’s claim to occupying this land is even thinner than its claim to Tibet or Taiwan. You can hop on a train to the regional capital of Urumqi without additional documentation, but be prepared for questions when you arrive.

* * * * *

Historically, the Han Empire was the government controlled by the Lui family, which ruled China from 206 B.C. to 220 A.D. Today’s China is much the same, a small clique of unelected officials ruling the vast lands of the Han Chinese and their subject peoples. The P.R.C. contains 55 government-recognized minority groups. These peoples speak more than 200 languages in seven language families. Each note of mainland Chinese currency contains 5 languages, to wit, Mongolian, Tibetan, Uighur, Zhuang and Chinese (written in Chinese ideograms and the Roman alphabet). Even the stars on the P.R.C. flag are, according to one interpretation, imperial in nature, with the large star representing the Han Chinese and the four small stars representing the Manchus, Mongols, Tibetans and Uighurs.

Part of the reason I went on this trip was to see the remnants of the great empires. One of those empires is still with us.

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Monday, January 29, 2007

Donald Richie On What Expats Are Seeking

From The Donald Richie Reader:

“They retain an illusion from childhood that there might be someplace into which they can finally sink to rest, some magic land, some golden age, some significantly other self. Yet his own oddness keeps the foreigner separate from every encounter. Unless he regards this as something fruitful, he cannot be considered cured.

“This is the great lesson of expatriation. In Japan, I sit on the lonely heights of my own peculiarities and gaze back at the flat plains of Ohio, whose quaint folkways no longer have any power over me. And then turn and gaze at the islands of Japan, whose folkways are equally powerless in that the folk insist I am no part of them. This I regard as the best seat in the house, because from here I can compare, and comparison is the first step toward understanding.”

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Saturday, January 27, 2007

Meet The New Boss

China’s New Rulers: The Secret Files, edited by Andrew J. Nathan and Bruce Gilley (Granta Books 2003).

On New Year’s Eve, I went to a Pizza Hut in Shenzhen, China, to read classified government documents in public. You get your New Year’s kicks your way, I’ll get them mine.

The Pizza Hut (which, along with McDonald’s and the Colonel, are the most popular fast food chains in China) was packed with about 50 adults as well as dozens of children and teenagers. This meant that, if the government’s numbers are correct, I was in the presence of about three members of the Chinese Communist Party, all of whom would have freaked if they knew I was reading leaked Politburo background reports of China’s top leaders while eating a Super Supreme.

The Party Investigates Its Own Leaders

As the millennium approached, the Party prepared to transfer power from what was called the Third Generation of leadership, led by Jiang Zemin, to the Fourth Generation, led by its “core,” Hu Jintao. (The First Generation were Mao Tse-Tung and his revolutionaries, and the Second Generation were Deng Xiaoping and his modernizers.)

China is not a dictatorship; it is an oligarchy, and the oligarchs are the five to nine people who comprise the Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC), the most powerful institution in the country. The PBSC makes all major decisions in every facet of Chinese public life. The state, the Party and the military – i.e., the three branches of the Chinese government -- are subordinate to the PBSC, which has unlimited jurisdiction and cannot be overruled. PBSC members labor under two procedural restraints: members serve five-year terms, and members who reach the age of 70 cannot seek another term.

Power at the highest level of China is transferred by changing the membership of the PBSC at the quinquennial Party Congresses. The membership of the PBSC is determined by the whole of the Politburo, the twenty-some highest-ranking Party members. To assist them in their selection, the Party’s Organization Department dispatches investigators to research and prepare background reports on all PBSC candidates.

In 2001, a Party source leaked the drafts of these background reports (which were being prepared for the 16th Party Congress scheduled for November 2002) to a journalist who writes under the pseudonym Zong Hairen. Zong used the reports as the basis for his Chinese-language book Disidai and then approached Columbia University professor Andrew J. Nathan, an editor of The Tiananmen Papers, to draft an English-language version.

The Secret Files Reveal a Hidden World

The resulting book is China’s New Rulers: The Secret Files, and its editors employ their knowledge of Chinese politics to contextualize the sometimes dry contents of the draft reports.

Despite the potential for sexual scandal inherent in background checks, the Party investigators do not examine the personal lives of members. Consequently, the only titillating gossip is the claim that former General Secretary Jiang Zemin allegedly used his position as the country’s top leader to bed a series of mistresses whom he rewarded with plum posts – a perk of office which, if true, he would share with almost every leader in world history.

The files discuss the Fourth Generation’s similar schooling. The three most powerful men in China have degrees in hydropower engineering, electron vacuum tubes and geomechanics. Other sons of fun in the PBSC spent their college years studying control systems, metallurgical pressure processing and automation. It should therefore be no surprise that these men see China as a machine that can yield the desired results if they design and operate it well. Of course, machines have no say in their governance, and neither do the Chinese people.

Because the files are written from the point of view of Chinese Communists, they contain information that the intended audience would perceive as non-controversial but that Western politicians would perceive as damaging if revealed about themselves. For example, while all PBSC candidates must demonstrate past administrative competence (often defined as not screwing up), patronage plays a more powerful role in career advancement than merit. The reports candidly detail the manner in which the careers of the Fourth Generation’s leaders were guarded and advanced by the Elders (sometimes translated as the Immortals), the most senior Party members.

The patronage system was instituted at the top. In 1980, China’s leader Deng Xiaoping ordered Party officials to identify and promote members who were “more revolutionary, younger, more knowledgeable, and more specialized.” Many senior officials added “more loyal” and selected dutiful and unthreatening acolytes to receive the affirmative action.

A Company Man

One such cadre was Hu Jintao. The hydropower engineer was working for the construction commission in the backwater province of Gansu when the province’s Party Secretary, Song Ping, appointed Hu as the deputy head of the commission, promoting him over the heads of more experienced officials. Song then successfully lobbied for a series of promotions for Hu.

Hu was reportedly a lackluster administrator, but he did not make any significant mistakes, and he cultivated supporters among his superiors inside Zhongnanhai, the walled compound in Beijing from which the nation is governed. Hu’s next big promotion was to Party Secretary of Guizhou, China’s poorest province, where he did not make waves. In 1988, he was accorded the post of Party Secretary of Tibet, where pro-independence rioting forced him to make a high-stakes decision. Hu declared martial law and cracked down on the Tibetans, much to Beijing’s approval. (A new book, Chinese Politics In The Hu Jintao Era by Willy Wo-Lap Lam, reports that Hu requested and received authority from Beijing to impose martial law but purposefully refused to make a decision regarding the use of force against the rioters. The frustrated local security chief unilaterally used force, thereby allowing Hu to receive the credit if the crackdown worked but avoid the blame if it failed.)

The Elders, including Deng Xiaoping, decided that Hu was “the core of his generation” and elevated him to the PBSC in 1992. Six years later, Hu’s status as the heir apparent was underlined with his appointment to the vice presidency where, like most vice presidents, Hu had little power and spent his time currying support for one final promotion. His loyalty was rewarded with the top job – which is actually three jobs that Hu acquired between 2002 and 2004.

A cadre’s rank within the Party is always the defining consideration, so the most powerful post in the country is the General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party. The armed forces are subservient to the Party, so a Party member is appointed as the Chairman of the Party’s Central Military Commission. (There is also a nearly identical state CMC.) Finally, the head of state is the President, a largely symbolic post with the important perquisite of granting its holder a democratic gloss. Hu holds all three posts, which has not always been the case in recent Chinese history. (I disagree with the decision by U.S. news media to refer to Hu as “President” when the presidency is the least important of his offices and the term inaccurately implies that he is elected. He should be referred to as “General Secretary,” the post from which his power emanates and a title which accurately communicates that he is the unelected leader of a Communist Party.)

A Never-Ending Struggle

While much of China’s New Rulers is the deepest inside baseball, details and patterns emerge about life in the strange world of the Party leadership.

China and its ruling Party are governed by consensus. If you want to advance a policy (for example, a liquidation of the assets of a bankrupt state-owned enterprise), you obtain agreement from your colleagues and superiors, allowing everyone to have a say and, if necessary, obtaining their acquiescence through horse-trading or other means. An unintentionally humorous aspect of the draft reports is the degree to which the Politburo members demand that PBSC members be “democratic” in their decision-making.

In order to be wired, a Party functionary needs to read constantly. The Party newspaper, People’s Daily, has to be interpreted each morning like Scripture for what it says, implies and does not say. The Party – which controls all print media – may issue more than a dozen periodicals relevant to an industry. Entire departments exist to write reports, with which relevant cadres are expected to be conversant.

Status within the middle management of the Party is a guessing game. While some posts are inherently important and others are self-evidently Mongolia, many Party and government jobs are simultaneously vague and redundant – quite a feat when you think about it. This amorphousness may explain why, once cadres ascend to the top level, they act obsessed with rank and its trappings.

The battle for position is constant. There are weekly meetings of committees, sub-committees, plenums, congresses, assemblies and conferences. Reports need to be drafted and commented and revised and vetted. Officials must prepare and deliver “self criticism” speeches and attend those of others. Holidays in the coastal city of Beidaihe, the Hamptons of China, are dominated by politicking. It would be simpler and faster to hold elections.

I wonder how ambitious Party members find the time to eat at Pizza Hut.

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I'm Back

Hong Kong, China

I am back in Hong Kong, where, unlike mainland China, the ability to research and post on the web is not considered a dire threat to the unelected ruling party. (Technically, Beijing does consider the internet in Hong Kong to be a threat but, thanks to protections installed by the British before they left, there’s not much the national gavernment can do about it.)

I will spend the next several days finalizing and posting various items I started on the mainland but was not able to complete. In deference to readers who think too many posts are about politics – that would be you, Starr – several posts this upcoming week will be about sex instead. Stay tuned.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Editorial Note

Beijing, China

The Chinese government's internet censorship regime has destroyed my
ability to research and post to Knife Tricks. I will describe the
on-the-ground effects once I leave the mainland, which will be in a
week or so, at which point I will also finalize and post the various
items I have been writing but that Hu Jintao & Company do not want me
to post.

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Friday, January 12, 2007

Fly The Boring Skies

Xiamen Airlines
Flight MF 8403
Guilin (KWL) to Chongqing (CKG)

The one-hour, $54 flight was a non-event in which a 757 carried
leisure travelers between two indistinguishable glass-and-steel
airports with illuminated billboards advertising consulting companies.
The trip was anecdotal evidence that domestic air travel within China
can be as exotic as a U.S. Airways flight from Utica to Bangor.

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Sunday, January 07, 2007

An Edge of the Earth

Bokurdak, Turkmenistan

November 2006.


Friday, January 05, 2007

Johnny Mnemonic

Guangzhou, China

The sillier the mnemonic, the easier it is to remember, someone told
me in grade school.

The advice served me well in seventh grade biology. "Kinky Peter
called out fat Gertrude Steinman." That would be the taxonomical
hierarchy of Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus and Species.

The memorization device worked in law school, too. "Naughty cookies
take ample arthritis medicine." When determining whether or not to
certify a case as a class action, a federal judge looks at various
factors, including the Number of plaintiffs, the Common issues of fact
and law, the Typicality of the lead plaintiffs, whether the court can
fashion relief which would Address the plaintiffs' grievances, the
Adequacy of class counsel, and the Manageability of the case if

Medical school spawned a famous mnemonic for the twelve cranial
nerves. "On old Olympus' towering top, a Finn and German viewed some
hops." The phrase isn't particularly silly, but, due to its fame,
most medical students know their cranial nerves before the first day
of class. (A lesser-known, and sillier, medical mnemonic lists the
bones in the wrist. "Never lower Tillie's panties; mother might come

Creating those mnemonics was probably easy sailing; they're based on
Latinate words beginning with common Roman letters. This week, I
tried to memorize the Chinese empires, so I would have a frame of
reference as books and articles made casual references to the Sui
Dynasty. (As journalist Jasper Becker reports in his book The
Chinese, "Only in China can one interview an official charged with
civil service reforms who, in describing these reforms, recalls how
officials of the Han dynasty (206 BC – AD 220) dealt with the problem
of nepotism.").

Over a long dinner of real Cantonese food – which bears only passing
resemblance to anything served under that name in the United States –
this is the best I could come up with:

"X-rated shinola zooms quickly, haunting Jenny South, seeking to sing
yet more quietly."

Starting in 2205 B.C, the 13 Chinese dynasties were: the Xia, the
Shang, the Zhou, the Qin, the Han, the Jin, the South-North, the Sui,
the Tang, the Song, the Yuan, the Ming and the Qing, which collapsed
in 1912. Some of these dynasties had discreet sub-dynasties, but
that's a problem for another day.

If you come up with a better mnemonic, I'd love to read it in the comments.


Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Bangkok Bombings: The Suspects

Shenzhen, China

A wave of New Year’s Eve bombings in the Thai capital of Bangkok killed three people and wounded more than 35, including 9 foreigners. Although no one has claimed responsibility for the attacks, there are a number of suspects:

Muslim separatists. Militants in the three southern-most provinces, which are predominantly Muslim, have been waging a low-level guerilla war for several years, seeking to break way from overwhelmingly Buddhist Thailand. Although the Thai government was quick to state that the separatists, with whom the government has been negotiating, were not primary suspects, the modus operandi – multiple low-intensity explosions in public places – is one that the separatists have used. On the other hand, while the southern separatists used devices actively triggered by mobile phone calls, the Bangkok bombs were passively triggered by digital timers, the (Bangkok) Nation reported. (The Muslim separatists do not appear to be radical Islamists but ethnic Malays who prefer independence or affiliation with neighboring Malaysia.)

The ruling junta. Whenever terror occurs, the soldiers in power must always be near the top of the suspect list. Although the military, which seized control of Thailand in a bloodless coup in September, has promised to hold elections in October, prior promises to lift martial law have been broken and, as all unelected leaders know, concocted threats to law and order provide an excuse to cancel elections and retain office.

Factions within the Thai security apparatus. Thailand is ruled by a committee of senior military and law enforcement officers, which means that Thailand is not ruled by those officers’ internal rivals. These opposition factions would have the knowledge and ability to perpetrate the bombings and a motive to embarrass the incumbents, who justified their coup on the grounds of stability. One such faction is known as Pre-Cadet Class 10, the most famous member of which is deposed Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra. In fact, Thaksin (Thais are traditionally referred to by their first names.) was influencing military promotions in favor of Class 10 members in the days prior to the coup.

Supporters of deposed Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra. The remnants of the ancien regime would prefer to reclaim the power they held before the September coup, which they contend was illegal. Current Thai prime minister Surayud Chulanont stated today that the bombings were “likely related to people who lost their political benefits,” citing intelligence and evidence he declined to reveal.

Targets of the current government’s anti-corruption investigations. Thailand is not particularly corrupt in the sense that certain African nations are corrupt, with petty officials demanding daily bribes and heads of state transferring millions of secretly obtained dollars into offshore bank accounts. But Thailand is a bastion of crony capitalism, where a businessman’s ability to profit correlates directly with the quality of his contacts in the governmental departments regulating his industry. Once those contacts have borne fruit, you can usually determine who is making money, how and how much, by reading the business pages, so a degree of transparency does exist.

No one benefited from crony capitalism like Thaksin Shinawatra. Thaksin is a member of the long-established Shinawatra merchant family, based in the northern hill town of Chiang Mai. Thaksin, like a certain Texan from a WASP political family, repeatedly failed in business, until his family connections helped him secure one of a limited number of wireless telecommunications licenses issued by the government. Thaksin adroitly exploited his oligopolistic position, ultimately grossing about US$2 billion in the January 2006 sale of a 49% stake in the family holding company, Shin Corp. (It should be noted that Thaksin built his business before he was elected prime minister; this is not a situation in which a person used his political office to become wealthy.)

Thaksin and his businesses enriched many people, and some of those people are now the targets of the Thai government’s anti-corruption investigations, initiated in the wake of the coup. One or more of these suspects, confronted with potential jail time and expropriation of wealth, arguably have the strongest incentives to resort to violence in the hopes of displacing the current government and ending the investigations.

The political opposition. Not including members of Thaksin’s Thai Rak Thai party, the Thai political scene also includes a sizeable Bangkok-centered opposition party, the Democratic Party, and a number of smaller parties, often organized around regional or clan ties.

Opium smugglers. The northern “Golden Triangle” portion of Thailand is a transshipment point for opium and its derivatives, an area where the Thai government has been battling drug runners, often with aid from the United States government.

Consequently, the Thai government, which has governed for less than four months, has several sets of enemies, and the bombers could have come from the ranks of any of them.

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