Commentary Magazine


Topic: Mao Zedong

ObamaCare and Political Theater

The health-care summit on Thursday will garner a huge amount of media attention — and its effect on the health-care debate will be negligible to nonexistent. It is simple political theater, a transparent public-relations game. No one believes anything important will be done, any serious negotiations will take place, any concessions will be given, any significant compromises struck. All it will do is place a debate we’ve been engaged in for the better part of a year on another stage.

The important news from this week has to do not with political “summits” but political substance — and the Obama administration’s stunning decision to double down on health care. I say stunning because ObamaCare is doing to the Democratic party what a wrecking ball does to a condemned building.

ObamaCare is, for one thing, hugely unpopular. David Brooks reports that if you average the last 10 polls, 38 percent of voters support the reform plans and 53 percent oppose. Obama’s reform is more unpopular than Bill Clinton’s was as it died, Brooks points out. And of course the intensity of opposition to the plan is far more than the intensity of support. Health care also set the context for Democratic losses in New Jersey, in Virginia, and in Massachusetts. Yet, according to press reports, “after initially reeling from the surprise election of Republican Scott Brown to the Senate in Massachusetts, Obama’s chief political strategists came to believe that voters would punish Democrats more severely in this year’s elections for failing to try [to pass health care legislation], they said.”

Liberals like E.J. Dionne Jr. and Ezra Klein of the Washington Post argue that if Obama fails to pass health-care reform, his presidency will be crippled — but if he passes reform, it will be salvaged. “This week will determine the shape of American politics for the next three years,” Dionne wrote on Monday. “No, that’s not one of those journalistic exaggerations intended to catch your attention. … It’s an accurate description of the stakes at the health care summit President Obama has called for Thursday. The issue is whether the summit proves to be the turning point in a political year that, at the moment, is moving decisively in the Republicans’ direction. If the summit fails to shake things up and does not lead to the passage of a comprehensive health care bill, Democrats and Obama are in for a miserable time for the rest of his term.”

This strikes me as perfectly wrong. After a year of intense debate, the public has reacted to ObamaCare the way the human body reacts to food poisoning. It is rejecting it, utterly and completely. For Obama and the White House to convince themselves to ram through legislation that is, if anything, worse than the original House and Senate bills is an act of madness.

I rather doubt it will succeed. For one thing, there are now at least three people who voted for the House version of the bill who will not vote for a reconciliation bill (the late John Murtha, Bart Stupak, and Joseph Cao). For another, the Democrats plan is more unpopular now than it was when it passed in the House last year (by a vote of 220-215). We are also in an election year, when the Democrats are desperate to turn attention from health care to jobs. And finally, we live in a post–Scott Brown election world. Democrats have seen that ObamaCare is political hemlock. It is a cup Democrats would rather have pass from their lips.

No one is arguing that not passing Obama’s signature domestic initiative would reflect well on the president. A failure of this magnitude will undoubtedly damage him. But in this instance, with the White House having acted so ineptly, failing to pass ObamaCare is the best of bad options. Obstinacy on behalf of a bad and unpopular idea is a road to political ruin.

In redoubling his efforts to pass health-care legislation, Obama will be rejected — not simply by Republicans and the public but also, I suspect, by members of his own party. This in turn will further weaken his political standing. He will have looked obsessively out of touch, selfish, and narcissistic. But in the highly unlikely event that Obama, Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and Majority Leader Harry Reid succeed in passing health-care legislation through the reconciliation process — if Democrats in the House are foolish enough to hitch their hopes to this liberal troika — there will be an even more fearsome political price to pay.

Some Democrats may believe things can’t possibly get worse, so they may as well pass ObamaCare. They are wrong. As one of my least favorite political philosophers, Mao Zedong, said, “It’s always darkest before it’s totally black.”

The health-care summit on Thursday will garner a huge amount of media attention — and its effect on the health-care debate will be negligible to nonexistent. It is simple political theater, a transparent public-relations game. No one believes anything important will be done, any serious negotiations will take place, any concessions will be given, any significant compromises struck. All it will do is place a debate we’ve been engaged in for the better part of a year on another stage.

The important news from this week has to do not with political “summits” but political substance — and the Obama administration’s stunning decision to double down on health care. I say stunning because ObamaCare is doing to the Democratic party what a wrecking ball does to a condemned building.

ObamaCare is, for one thing, hugely unpopular. David Brooks reports that if you average the last 10 polls, 38 percent of voters support the reform plans and 53 percent oppose. Obama’s reform is more unpopular than Bill Clinton’s was as it died, Brooks points out. And of course the intensity of opposition to the plan is far more than the intensity of support. Health care also set the context for Democratic losses in New Jersey, in Virginia, and in Massachusetts. Yet, according to press reports, “after initially reeling from the surprise election of Republican Scott Brown to the Senate in Massachusetts, Obama’s chief political strategists came to believe that voters would punish Democrats more severely in this year’s elections for failing to try [to pass health care legislation], they said.”

Liberals like E.J. Dionne Jr. and Ezra Klein of the Washington Post argue that if Obama fails to pass health-care reform, his presidency will be crippled — but if he passes reform, it will be salvaged. “This week will determine the shape of American politics for the next three years,” Dionne wrote on Monday. “No, that’s not one of those journalistic exaggerations intended to catch your attention. … It’s an accurate description of the stakes at the health care summit President Obama has called for Thursday. The issue is whether the summit proves to be the turning point in a political year that, at the moment, is moving decisively in the Republicans’ direction. If the summit fails to shake things up and does not lead to the passage of a comprehensive health care bill, Democrats and Obama are in for a miserable time for the rest of his term.”

This strikes me as perfectly wrong. After a year of intense debate, the public has reacted to ObamaCare the way the human body reacts to food poisoning. It is rejecting it, utterly and completely. For Obama and the White House to convince themselves to ram through legislation that is, if anything, worse than the original House and Senate bills is an act of madness.

I rather doubt it will succeed. For one thing, there are now at least three people who voted for the House version of the bill who will not vote for a reconciliation bill (the late John Murtha, Bart Stupak, and Joseph Cao). For another, the Democrats plan is more unpopular now than it was when it passed in the House last year (by a vote of 220-215). We are also in an election year, when the Democrats are desperate to turn attention from health care to jobs. And finally, we live in a post–Scott Brown election world. Democrats have seen that ObamaCare is political hemlock. It is a cup Democrats would rather have pass from their lips.

No one is arguing that not passing Obama’s signature domestic initiative would reflect well on the president. A failure of this magnitude will undoubtedly damage him. But in this instance, with the White House having acted so ineptly, failing to pass ObamaCare is the best of bad options. Obstinacy on behalf of a bad and unpopular idea is a road to political ruin.

In redoubling his efforts to pass health-care legislation, Obama will be rejected — not simply by Republicans and the public but also, I suspect, by members of his own party. This in turn will further weaken his political standing. He will have looked obsessively out of touch, selfish, and narcissistic. But in the highly unlikely event that Obama, Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and Majority Leader Harry Reid succeed in passing health-care legislation through the reconciliation process — if Democrats in the House are foolish enough to hitch their hopes to this liberal troika — there will be an even more fearsome political price to pay.

Some Democrats may believe things can’t possibly get worse, so they may as well pass ObamaCare. They are wrong. As one of my least favorite political philosophers, Mao Zedong, said, “It’s always darkest before it’s totally black.”

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Ridiculous Writings on Totalitarian Countries

I don’t know why, but I am still amazed by the credulity of some reporters. In researching my history of guerrilla warfare and terrorism (tentatively titled Invisible Armies), I have been running across some startling quotes from Western journalists who visited Communist-held areas of China in the 1930s and ‘40s. Sample:

The Chinese Communists are not Communists — not according to the Russian definition of the term. They do not, at the present time, either advocate or practice Communism…. Today the  Chinese Communists are no more Communistic than we Americans are.

That’s from the 1945 book, Report from Red China, written by the photojournalist Harrison Forman. He took seriously Mao Zedong’s statements to him that “we are not striving for the social and political Communism of Soviet Russia. Rather, we prefer to think of what we are doing as something that Lincoln fought for in your Civil War: the liberation of slaves. In China today, we have many millions of slaves, shackled by feudalism.” He also reported uncritically about Mao’s vow that the Communists would not establish a “dictatorship of the proletariat” and would instead set up a “democratic government” that would include “landlords, merchants, capitalists, and petit bourgeois as well as peasants and workers.” Apparently, Forman was unaware of the bloody campaigns the Communists had already carried out against “landlords” and “rich peasants.” Forman couldn’t understand why Mao didn’t change the party’s name to “Neo-Democracy” or “Democraticism” or “some such” name! (Mao’s canny non-reply: “If we were to change suddenly to some other name, there are those in China today — and abroad, too — who would make capital out of it, would accuse us of trying to cover up something.”)

And then, of course, there was the infamous Edgar Snow, whose Red Star Over China (1938) introduced Mao & Co. to much of the world — including to much of China.  Snow actually thought Mao, who would become arguably history’s worst mass-murder, was “a moderating influence in the Communist movement where life and death were concerned.”

This is hardly an isolated phenomenon, given how many boosters Stalin and Castro, Ho Chi Minh and even Pol Pot had among the Western press corps. The tradition continues today with some prominent writers (like Roger Cohen of the New York Times) offering apologetics on behalf of Iran, while his colleague, Tom Friedman, exalts China’s current lack of democracy. Someday, I trust their writings will be as ridiculed as Forman’s and Snow’s deserve to be.

I don’t know why, but I am still amazed by the credulity of some reporters. In researching my history of guerrilla warfare and terrorism (tentatively titled Invisible Armies), I have been running across some startling quotes from Western journalists who visited Communist-held areas of China in the 1930s and ‘40s. Sample:

The Chinese Communists are not Communists — not according to the Russian definition of the term. They do not, at the present time, either advocate or practice Communism…. Today the  Chinese Communists are no more Communistic than we Americans are.

That’s from the 1945 book, Report from Red China, written by the photojournalist Harrison Forman. He took seriously Mao Zedong’s statements to him that “we are not striving for the social and political Communism of Soviet Russia. Rather, we prefer to think of what we are doing as something that Lincoln fought for in your Civil War: the liberation of slaves. In China today, we have many millions of slaves, shackled by feudalism.” He also reported uncritically about Mao’s vow that the Communists would not establish a “dictatorship of the proletariat” and would instead set up a “democratic government” that would include “landlords, merchants, capitalists, and petit bourgeois as well as peasants and workers.” Apparently, Forman was unaware of the bloody campaigns the Communists had already carried out against “landlords” and “rich peasants.” Forman couldn’t understand why Mao didn’t change the party’s name to “Neo-Democracy” or “Democraticism” or “some such” name! (Mao’s canny non-reply: “If we were to change suddenly to some other name, there are those in China today — and abroad, too — who would make capital out of it, would accuse us of trying to cover up something.”)

And then, of course, there was the infamous Edgar Snow, whose Red Star Over China (1938) introduced Mao & Co. to much of the world — including to much of China.  Snow actually thought Mao, who would become arguably history’s worst mass-murder, was “a moderating influence in the Communist movement where life and death were concerned.”

This is hardly an isolated phenomenon, given how many boosters Stalin and Castro, Ho Chi Minh and even Pol Pot had among the Western press corps. The tradition continues today with some prominent writers (like Roger Cohen of the New York Times) offering apologetics on behalf of Iran, while his colleague, Tom Friedman, exalts China’s current lack of democracy. Someday, I trust their writings will be as ridiculed as Forman’s and Snow’s deserve to be.

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“Patriotic” Chinese Protests

Sunday, thousands of angry Chinese took to the streets in anti-foreigner protests in major cities in China, including Wuhan, Harbin, Jinan, Xian, Qingdao, and Dalian. The demonstrations followed those occurring on Friday and Saturday, which took place around the country, including Beijing, Kunming, and Hefei. They were the largest anti-foreign protests in three years, since anti-Japan riots shook Beijing, Shanghai, and other cities in China.

Young Chinese, upset at foreign media coverage of recent ethnic disturbances and pro-Tibetan protests around the world, gathered in front of foreign stores, declared a boycott of French retailer Carrefour, and carried pictures of Mao Zedong. “Condemn CNN” and “Shut up you French,” seen on banners over the weekend, expressed popular sentiment. “We’re supporting the Olympics and boycotting Tibetan independence,” said the organizer of one of the demonstrations in the Chinese capital. As Zhu Xiaomeng, a student in Beijing who has been organizing a boycott of French companies, noted, “After 5,000 years, we’re not so soft anymore.”

That’s the message Beijing wants you to hear. Chinese state media triggered the protests in China with noxious anti-French stories that began appearing about a week ago, and Beijing has fueled demonstrations in Paris, Berlin, Vienna, London, Birmingham, and Manchester in Europe and San Francisco, Los Angeles, the Twin Cities, and Washington, D.C. by paying “patriotic” Chinese to participate.

The ugly tactic seems to be working. French President Nicolas Sarkozy, for instance, will be sending three envoys to Beijing to try to limit the damage (the first left France yesterday). He also invited Jin Jing, a disabled fencer who protected the Olympic flame in the Paris torch relay from protesters, to be his “personal guest.” There is, however, evidence that Beijing manufactured the incident that made the “wheelchair angel” a national symbol of Chinese defiance.

So the West is being intimidated once again by arrogant Chinese rulers. Eventually, we will learn that Beijing has been manipulating us all along. In the meantime, Western leaders will continue to apologize to the Middle Kingdom whenever it gets into a snit.

Sunday, thousands of angry Chinese took to the streets in anti-foreigner protests in major cities in China, including Wuhan, Harbin, Jinan, Xian, Qingdao, and Dalian. The demonstrations followed those occurring on Friday and Saturday, which took place around the country, including Beijing, Kunming, and Hefei. They were the largest anti-foreign protests in three years, since anti-Japan riots shook Beijing, Shanghai, and other cities in China.

Young Chinese, upset at foreign media coverage of recent ethnic disturbances and pro-Tibetan protests around the world, gathered in front of foreign stores, declared a boycott of French retailer Carrefour, and carried pictures of Mao Zedong. “Condemn CNN” and “Shut up you French,” seen on banners over the weekend, expressed popular sentiment. “We’re supporting the Olympics and boycotting Tibetan independence,” said the organizer of one of the demonstrations in the Chinese capital. As Zhu Xiaomeng, a student in Beijing who has been organizing a boycott of French companies, noted, “After 5,000 years, we’re not so soft anymore.”

That’s the message Beijing wants you to hear. Chinese state media triggered the protests in China with noxious anti-French stories that began appearing about a week ago, and Beijing has fueled demonstrations in Paris, Berlin, Vienna, London, Birmingham, and Manchester in Europe and San Francisco, Los Angeles, the Twin Cities, and Washington, D.C. by paying “patriotic” Chinese to participate.

The ugly tactic seems to be working. French President Nicolas Sarkozy, for instance, will be sending three envoys to Beijing to try to limit the damage (the first left France yesterday). He also invited Jin Jing, a disabled fencer who protected the Olympic flame in the Paris torch relay from protesters, to be his “personal guest.” There is, however, evidence that Beijing manufactured the incident that made the “wheelchair angel” a national symbol of Chinese defiance.

So the West is being intimidated once again by arrogant Chinese rulers. Eventually, we will learn that Beijing has been manipulating us all along. In the meantime, Western leaders will continue to apologize to the Middle Kingdom whenever it gets into a snit.

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This Land Is My Land!

Today, Reuters reports that Chinese authorities in central Shaanxi province have detained three peasants who led a campaign to reclaim land. The three were among six farmers who signed an open letter, purportedly on behalf of 70,000 others. “We reject the previous form of collective ownership,” the letter states. “It cannot guarantee the farmers’ permanent rights to the land . . . and cannot prevent the illegal infringement by officials and thugs.”

The three peasants have been charged with “inciting to subvert state power,” and it’s not hard to see why. In what could be the most significant development in China this year, peasants across the country in the last few weeks are declaring that they, and not the state or its collectives, own the fields they till and the orchards they tend. Similar declarations have been made in the last two weeks in the provincial-level city of Tianjin and the provinces of Heilongjiang and Jiangsu.

Mao Zedong came to power in 1949 on promises of land redistribution. He made good on his word by breaking up the holdings of landlords, but he soon confiscated all land for the state in the 1950s. Local peasants, on their own initiative, brought back the concept of individual farming in the early 1980s, but they never obtained title to the soil. Now, they want to complete the process and own the land they occupy. If successful, they will put an end to socialism in the countryside.

It’s not that the agricultural poor are highminded. They merely want what is theirs. In the last decade predatory officials have, in the name of development, grabbed peasant land with little or no compensation but almost always for their personal benefit. Land seizures are undoubtedly the biggest cause of unrest—sometimes in the form of pitched battles between peasants and thugs hired by local governments—in China today.

Beijing vows that the countryside will be stable in 2008. Yesterday, the Central Committee of the Communist Party and the central government’s State Council concluded their annual central rural work conference with the usual pledges to aid the peasantry, including a ten-point program. In addition, on Saturday the Ministry of Finance announced a pilot program to provide in three agricultural provinces subsidies covering 13 percent of the cost of color televisions, refrigerators, and mobile phones.

The Chinese will gladly take handouts, but central government technocrats are mistaken if they think they can prevent peasants from taking what they have demanded for generations—the right to own land. And there are others who are also deluded: we are about to witness, once again, the world’s poor conclusively prove to Western analysts that socialism is not sustainable.

Today, Reuters reports that Chinese authorities in central Shaanxi province have detained three peasants who led a campaign to reclaim land. The three were among six farmers who signed an open letter, purportedly on behalf of 70,000 others. “We reject the previous form of collective ownership,” the letter states. “It cannot guarantee the farmers’ permanent rights to the land . . . and cannot prevent the illegal infringement by officials and thugs.”

The three peasants have been charged with “inciting to subvert state power,” and it’s not hard to see why. In what could be the most significant development in China this year, peasants across the country in the last few weeks are declaring that they, and not the state or its collectives, own the fields they till and the orchards they tend. Similar declarations have been made in the last two weeks in the provincial-level city of Tianjin and the provinces of Heilongjiang and Jiangsu.

Mao Zedong came to power in 1949 on promises of land redistribution. He made good on his word by breaking up the holdings of landlords, but he soon confiscated all land for the state in the 1950s. Local peasants, on their own initiative, brought back the concept of individual farming in the early 1980s, but they never obtained title to the soil. Now, they want to complete the process and own the land they occupy. If successful, they will put an end to socialism in the countryside.

It’s not that the agricultural poor are highminded. They merely want what is theirs. In the last decade predatory officials have, in the name of development, grabbed peasant land with little or no compensation but almost always for their personal benefit. Land seizures are undoubtedly the biggest cause of unrest—sometimes in the form of pitched battles between peasants and thugs hired by local governments—in China today.

Beijing vows that the countryside will be stable in 2008. Yesterday, the Central Committee of the Communist Party and the central government’s State Council concluded their annual central rural work conference with the usual pledges to aid the peasantry, including a ten-point program. In addition, on Saturday the Ministry of Finance announced a pilot program to provide in three agricultural provinces subsidies covering 13 percent of the cost of color televisions, refrigerators, and mobile phones.

The Chinese will gladly take handouts, but central government technocrats are mistaken if they think they can prevent peasants from taking what they have demanded for generations—the right to own land. And there are others who are also deluded: we are about to witness, once again, the world’s poor conclusively prove to Western analysts that socialism is not sustainable.

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The Tehran-Damascus Axis

The New York Times has an interesting article reporting on the deepening economic ties between Iran and Syria. Hugh Naylor writes from Damascus:

The Syrian government estimates that Iranian investment in 2006 alone surged to more than $400 million, making Tehran the third-largest foreign investor here, behind Saudi Arabia and Turkey. Though exact figures are unavailable, by some estimates Iran has invested a total of $3 billion in Syria, most of that in the last few years.

In September, officials from both countries announced plans to expand Iranian projects in Syria to $10 billion over the next five years, which would cast Tehran as the economic powerhouse here.

But of course this being the New York Times, the writer can’t stick to the facts—facts that suggest that some of us have reason to be increasingly alarmed about the Tehran-Damascus Axis. He has to throw in a jab at the Bush administration, too. Naylor claims that Iran and Syria are cementing their ties only because neither one can do business with America, since they’re both under American-led sanctions. He cites anonymous “Western diplomats and analysts,” who say “that Washington has effectively pushed Damascus and Tehran into deepening their alliance of nearly three decades.”

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The New York Times has an interesting article reporting on the deepening economic ties between Iran and Syria. Hugh Naylor writes from Damascus:

The Syrian government estimates that Iranian investment in 2006 alone surged to more than $400 million, making Tehran the third-largest foreign investor here, behind Saudi Arabia and Turkey. Though exact figures are unavailable, by some estimates Iran has invested a total of $3 billion in Syria, most of that in the last few years.

In September, officials from both countries announced plans to expand Iranian projects in Syria to $10 billion over the next five years, which would cast Tehran as the economic powerhouse here.

But of course this being the New York Times, the writer can’t stick to the facts—facts that suggest that some of us have reason to be increasingly alarmed about the Tehran-Damascus Axis. He has to throw in a jab at the Bush administration, too. Naylor claims that Iran and Syria are cementing their ties only because neither one can do business with America, since they’re both under American-led sanctions. He cites anonymous “Western diplomats and analysts,” who say “that Washington has effectively pushed Damascus and Tehran into deepening their alliance of nearly three decades.”

This is pretty much the party line at places like the Times whenever other countries align against the United States: It can’t be because they don’t like us, or because our interests are mutually incompatible. It must be because we spurned their generous and deeply felt offers of friendship.

Thus, over the years, we have heard all sorts of elaborate fictions about how everyone from Ho Chi Minh and Fidel Castro to Mao Zedong and Josef Stalin was really a good guy, a pro-American, if only we had overcome the paranoia of hawks and reached out to him. In each and every instance, historical research has shattered these illusions, showing that these communist dictators were only pretending to be pro-Western at various points in their careers for tactical reasons, while in reality they were committed Marxists all along.

Yet the illusions never die and now adhere to such unlikely candidates as Bashar Assad and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. How can anyone plausibly argue that they would love to reach out to America if only we would let them? The reality is that the Clinton administration spent much of the 1990′s trying to reach a rapprochement with both countries and never got anywhere. Today they are farther apart from the U.S. than ever before as they support Islamofascist terrorist groups (Hamas, Hizballah, al Qaeda in Iraq) and connive in the murder of American soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. Given the strategic alignment between Iran and Syria—symbolized by a defense pact they signed in 2006 that Naylor never mentions—it makes perfect sense that they are also aligning their economic interests. Or, put more crudely, that Iran is using its oil revenues to subsidize the bankrupt Baathist regime in Damascus.

How is this America’s fault?

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Book Review: In the Ruins of Empire

More than six decades after the end of World War II, Asia continues to grapple with the legacy of war. Unlike in Europe, where countries have attempted to create a new set of norms and institutions designed to link them ever more closely together, Asia in many ways seems stuck in history, revisiting old wounds and squabbling over the same territory. In his compelling new history of the aftermath of war in the Pacific, In the Ruins of Empire: The Japanese Surrender and the Battle for Postwar Asia (Random House, $27.95), Ronald Spector argues that the region’s future was largely determined in the year after the Japanese surrender, and was doomed primarily by the misguided and unrealistic attempts of the victorious Western allies to impose order on the chaos unleashed by Japan’s surrender and abandonment of its occupied territories. Washington spent much of the cold war dealing with the resulting instability.

Certainly in comparison to Europe, postwar Asia seemed almost incomprehensibly complex. Moreover, as Washington grappled with creating a pax Americana, Asia appeared less strategically important than Europe, in part because nothing like the specter of all-out conflagration hung over the region, and in part due to the absence of ethnic connection to the Atlantic world. And yet at the same time, while the cold war certainly affected Asia, causing extensive destruction in Korea, Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, the region’s nations were spared Europe’s draining twilight struggle.

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More than six decades after the end of World War II, Asia continues to grapple with the legacy of war. Unlike in Europe, where countries have attempted to create a new set of norms and institutions designed to link them ever more closely together, Asia in many ways seems stuck in history, revisiting old wounds and squabbling over the same territory. In his compelling new history of the aftermath of war in the Pacific, In the Ruins of Empire: The Japanese Surrender and the Battle for Postwar Asia (Random House, $27.95), Ronald Spector argues that the region’s future was largely determined in the year after the Japanese surrender, and was doomed primarily by the misguided and unrealistic attempts of the victorious Western allies to impose order on the chaos unleashed by Japan’s surrender and abandonment of its occupied territories. Washington spent much of the cold war dealing with the resulting instability.

Certainly in comparison to Europe, postwar Asia seemed almost incomprehensibly complex. Moreover, as Washington grappled with creating a pax Americana, Asia appeared less strategically important than Europe, in part because nothing like the specter of all-out conflagration hung over the region, and in part due to the absence of ethnic connection to the Atlantic world. And yet at the same time, while the cold war certainly affected Asia, causing extensive destruction in Korea, Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, the region’s nations were spared Europe’s draining twilight struggle.

American and European policymakers found themselves at odds over what to do with Asia almost as soon as the Japanese surrendered. For Americans, the basic template they applied to Europe—liberalism versus Communism—quickly dominated their thinking. The potential loss of China was contrasted with the success of a democratizing Japan, while naked aggression by North Korea against the South in 1950 would be repulsed as the front line in the struggle against Communism in Asia. The British, French, and Dutch tenuously sought to recreate their prewar spheres of influence and control. Both the Americans and Europeans, however, found themselves enmeshed in the quicksand of the numerous liberation movements, revived ethnic conflicts, and simple power struggles that erupted throughout the region, from Indonesia to the Korean peninsula.

Best known for his classic one-volume history of the Pacific War, Eagle Against the Sun, Spector here turns his gaze on the confused conditions prevailing immediately after Tokyo’s surrender in August 1945. Noting that the traditional historical narrative assumes that the end of war meant the end of fighting and the spontaneous regeneration of order, Spector argues that the post-World War II “peace” in Asia was the continuation of war under another name (with, in some cases, fiercer fighting than during the war). His book, inasmuch as it tells this story, neatly complements John Dower’s Embracing Defeat, which tells a similarly revisionist tale of the U.S. occupation of Japan. Both works give primary importance to the mistakes, failures, and naiveté of the so-called victorious powers; both assert that domestic players and local conditions truly created postwar Asia.

The central dynamic in Spector’s story is the disintegration of empire—that of wartime Japan, and the feeble attempts at reconstituting the empires of prewar Europe. The Japanese had erected an ideological scaffolding of colonial liberation over their wartime occupation of most of Asia. They justified their brutal control over China and Korea with the goal of creating a new Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. The conditions the Japanese had faced quickly transferred to the victors. In some areas of Japanese control, such as in China, occupation overlay an existing condition of civil war. In Indochina, Japanese troops fought rebels, like Ho Chi Minh, who were experienced in combating European powers. The pre-1937 dynamics continued into the postwar period, and were realized fully in China: stabilizing Chiang Kai-shek became Washington’s primary Asian policy. Spector’s first three chapters cover well-trodden ground, emphasizing the incompatibility of America’s attempt to act as an honest broker between the Nationalists and Mao Zedong’s Communists with its effort to secure Chiang’s victory. (Not even the great George Marshall could square that circle.)

That, indeed, is the leitmotif of Spector’s book: the basic inability of the Allied powers to adjust to the realities on the ground. Wishful thinking and good intentions proved no match for unleashed nationalist passions, as Spector’s subsequent chapters show. In Malaya, for example, the British attempt to reassert control lasted less than a year, until April 1946. The ineffective British Military Administration proved helpless in the face of intense ethnic strife between Chinese and Malays, in which Communists and mystical Islamic movements all contributed to chaos and bloodletting. Nor were the Allies above using their erstwhile enemies, the Japanese, thousands of whom were enrolled to fight rebels and Communists; for these soldiers, too, the end of war did not bring about the end of fighting. Spector condemns in particular the French and Dutch (as well as the rapacious Soviets), whose violent and stubborn attempts to reconstitute prewar empires in Indochina and Indonesia, respectively, led to widespread atrocities and scuttled any possibility of reaching some type of negotiated settlements among the parties. The particular tragedy of Vietnam, where the anti-colonial animus of the Americans was subordinated to supporting a European ally, underscores Spector’s analysis of the irreconcilable tensions in U.S. Asian policy.

What also emerges with crystal clarity from Spector’s account is the importance of personalities. Bucking the trend among professional academics, Spector shows that individuals count, and in some cases were the deciding elements in the paths their countries took. Not only well-known figures such as Mao and Ho, but equally important leaders in Indonesia and Korea, who frustrated European and American plans, and labored to realize their own visions.

Given the rich history of post-1947 Asia, one might be dissatisfied with the limited chronological scope of Spector’s book. The pivotal events in the region all happened after 1947, and none of them was foreordained. In that respect, it is impossible to judge whether Spector’s assertion—that the vacuum of the immediate postwar months set the path for the following decades—is accurate or overstated. Moreover, strained comparisons between postwar Asia and postwar Iraq, which read like afterthoughts, fail as attempts to make the book somehow more timely or relevant. As his fluid prose and thorough archival research show, telling the story of the battle for postwar Asia needs no justification.

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Mao Bites Dog

A pet shop owner in Yongin, Korea, about 25 miles south of Seoul, set off an international incident recently with an advertising sign featuring . . . a puppy. In the sign, a dog’s head replaces that of Mao Zedong in the portrait hanging at the northern end of Tiananmen Square. Last Tuesday, China’s Foreign Ministry summoned a South Korean diplomat to protest, and the shop’s owner immediately pulled down the sign and apologized to Beijing.

What’s wrong with this picture? First, China’s authoritarian state tried to censor an image appearing in a democracy—and the democracy bowed. Yet there is something even more far-reaching and disturbing in this incident. Since 1954, the People’s Republic has maintained that the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence—mutual respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity, mutual non-aggression, non-interference in others’ internal affairs, equality and mutual benefit, and peaceful coexistence—are essential to its foreign policy.

Beijing always says China’s rise will be peaceful, that it does not pose a threat to anyone else, and that it will never interfere in the domestic affairs of another nation. But if its definition of “non-interference” includes the right to ban advertising for a pet shop in a backwater location in another country, then the world is in for a load of trouble.

A pet shop owner in Yongin, Korea, about 25 miles south of Seoul, set off an international incident recently with an advertising sign featuring . . . a puppy. In the sign, a dog’s head replaces that of Mao Zedong in the portrait hanging at the northern end of Tiananmen Square. Last Tuesday, China’s Foreign Ministry summoned a South Korean diplomat to protest, and the shop’s owner immediately pulled down the sign and apologized to Beijing.

What’s wrong with this picture? First, China’s authoritarian state tried to censor an image appearing in a democracy—and the democracy bowed. Yet there is something even more far-reaching and disturbing in this incident. Since 1954, the People’s Republic has maintained that the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence—mutual respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity, mutual non-aggression, non-interference in others’ internal affairs, equality and mutual benefit, and peaceful coexistence—are essential to its foreign policy.

Beijing always says China’s rise will be peaceful, that it does not pose a threat to anyone else, and that it will never interfere in the domestic affairs of another nation. But if its definition of “non-interference” includes the right to ban advertising for a pet shop in a backwater location in another country, then the world is in for a load of trouble.

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My Father at 90

Today, my dad turns 90. Our family marked this milestone by getting together in Ithaca, his first home in the United States of America. My father came to this country from China by design, but stayed by happenstance. He won a scholarship to study here, and planned to return as soon as he earned his masters degree in civil engineering, which he did in 1946. By then he had seen his homeland tear itself apart in the civil war between the Kuomintang of Chiang Kai-shek and the Communist Party of Mao Zedong. As we know, Mao won, taking power in 1949. Many idealistic Chinese returned to build New China, as the Communists called it, but my dad wanted to stay in his adopted land. An open America let him.

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Today, my dad turns 90. Our family marked this milestone by getting together in Ithaca, his first home in the United States of America. My father came to this country from China by design, but stayed by happenstance. He won a scholarship to study here, and planned to return as soon as he earned his masters degree in civil engineering, which he did in 1946. By then he had seen his homeland tear itself apart in the civil war between the Kuomintang of Chiang Kai-shek and the Communist Party of Mao Zedong. As we know, Mao won, taking power in 1949. Many idealistic Chinese returned to build New China, as the Communists called it, but my dad wanted to stay in his adopted land. An open America let him.

And he made a new life in the United States. He learned English by reading the Wall Street Journal, became a citizen in the early 1960s, and raised four children. He started a business—a Chinese takeout—that grew into an eatery, which became a big restaurant. He bought a building, renovated it, and sparked the rejuvenation of the main street of his town in suburban New Jersey. He never misses an opportunity to vote (or to tell me how great his adopted country is).

At the end of June the Senate blocked President Bush’s immigration bill, largely due to public opposition to its amnesty provisions. Like millions of other Americans, I am deeply uneasy about these provisions, which would inevitably encourage more illegal immigration and unfairly treat aliens seeking residence through legal channels. But it is of crucial importance that we not let legislative gridlock kill the discussion and impede our movement towards a sensible immigration policy. In the long run, there may be no other issue more important to this country.

When I hear the fierce debate on immigration I think of my dad. At 90, he’s not able to travel back to his birthplace, a farming hamlet across the river from Shanghai. I’m sure he returns there in his dreams, but he’s an American now. This is where he calls home.

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Mao, Coming Soon to the Big Screen

Earlier this week, Variety magazine reported that Robert DeNiro and his Tribeca Productions partner Jane Rosenthal have obtained the rights to Roy Rowan’s Chasing the Dragon: A Veteran Journalist’s Firsthand Account of the 1949 Chinese Revolution. Rowan, a former correspondent for Time and Life, will be a consultant on the film.

I probably will not be asked to help on this project, so I thought I should make some notes for DeNiro. The late 1940′s were heady times for Mao Zedong. He defeated a vastly superior adversary, Chiang Kai-shek, who enjoyed substantial American support. Yet Kai-shek was corrupt, weak, and incompetent. It’s no wonder that a ragtag army of rebels led by an assistant librarian with literary aspirations defeated him—Chiang had simply lost the hearts of the Chinese people. Mao did not win, so much as he occupied a vacuum after his opponent’s forces disintegrated.

The young Mao went on to preside over the early successes of the People’s Republic. So DeNiro’s film might end up making him look pretty good. Should we complain if Mao is portrayed as a hero during the revolution and the first few years of New China?

Actually, the better Mao looks on the big screen, the worse it is for his successors, especially the ones in power now. Hu Jintao, the current General Secretary of the Communist Party, will not like moviegoers making comparisons between the charismatic Mao of the early years and the drab and corrupt leaders who infest Beijing today. Hu knows that the Party has lost the hearts of the Chinese, and someone in the audience may just get the idea that it is time for another revolution in the great nation of China. Chinese idealism, after all, did not die with Mao Zedong.

Earlier this week, Variety magazine reported that Robert DeNiro and his Tribeca Productions partner Jane Rosenthal have obtained the rights to Roy Rowan’s Chasing the Dragon: A Veteran Journalist’s Firsthand Account of the 1949 Chinese Revolution. Rowan, a former correspondent for Time and Life, will be a consultant on the film.

I probably will not be asked to help on this project, so I thought I should make some notes for DeNiro. The late 1940′s were heady times for Mao Zedong. He defeated a vastly superior adversary, Chiang Kai-shek, who enjoyed substantial American support. Yet Kai-shek was corrupt, weak, and incompetent. It’s no wonder that a ragtag army of rebels led by an assistant librarian with literary aspirations defeated him—Chiang had simply lost the hearts of the Chinese people. Mao did not win, so much as he occupied a vacuum after his opponent’s forces disintegrated.

The young Mao went on to preside over the early successes of the People’s Republic. So DeNiro’s film might end up making him look pretty good. Should we complain if Mao is portrayed as a hero during the revolution and the first few years of New China?

Actually, the better Mao looks on the big screen, the worse it is for his successors, especially the ones in power now. Hu Jintao, the current General Secretary of the Communist Party, will not like moviegoers making comparisons between the charismatic Mao of the early years and the drab and corrupt leaders who infest Beijing today. Hu knows that the Party has lost the hearts of the Chinese, and someone in the audience may just get the idea that it is time for another revolution in the great nation of China. Chinese idealism, after all, did not die with Mao Zedong.

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Charm Offensive, by Joshua Kurlantzick

Joshua Kurlantzick
Charm Offensive: How China’s Soft Power Is Transforming the World
Yale. 320 pp. $26.00.

Across the globe, China’s diplomatic presence is growing with astounding speed. In Maputo, Mozambique, the ministry of foreign affairs—built with Chinese money—sports an elaborate pagoda roof. In Songhkla, Thailand, the building formerly housing the American consulate now houses political and economic emissaries from Beijing—a disturbing image of China’s influence waxing as America’s recedes. And in dozens of other nations, China’s power is expanding equally quickly. In Charm Offensive: How China’s Soft Power Is Transforming the World, Joshua Kurlantzick explains how the Chinese are increasing their reach and, in the process, helping rogue leaders, causing environmental degradation, and undermining the United States.

Readers of COMMENTARY will be familiar with this narrative. Kurlantzick, a special correspondent for The New Republic, outlined elements of this thesis in COMMENTARY’s October 2006 issue. It is, however, an important story and well worth telling in book form.

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Joshua Kurlantzick
Charm Offensive: How China’s Soft Power Is Transforming the World
Yale. 320 pp. $26.00.

Across the globe, China’s diplomatic presence is growing with astounding speed. In Maputo, Mozambique, the ministry of foreign affairs—built with Chinese money—sports an elaborate pagoda roof. In Songhkla, Thailand, the building formerly housing the American consulate now houses political and economic emissaries from Beijing—a disturbing image of China’s influence waxing as America’s recedes. And in dozens of other nations, China’s power is expanding equally quickly. In Charm Offensive: How China’s Soft Power Is Transforming the World, Joshua Kurlantzick explains how the Chinese are increasing their reach and, in the process, helping rogue leaders, causing environmental degradation, and undermining the United States.

Readers of COMMENTARY will be familiar with this narrative. Kurlantzick, a special correspondent for The New Republic, outlined elements of this thesis in COMMENTARY’s October 2006 issue. It is, however, an important story and well worth telling in book form.

Kurlantzick begins his analysis, appropriately enough, with Mao Zedong. The first leader of the People’s Republic wanted to export the Chinese revolution around the world. His attempted insurgencies, however, generally failed, poisoning relations with many nations for a generation. Even when Mao backed a winner—such as the murderous Khmer Rouge in Cambodia—the result was disastrous for Beijing’s reputation.

Deng Xiaoping, Mao’s successor, ended many of these counterproductive foreign policies. But he still relied overmuch on the use of force, launching a failed war with Vietnam in 1979, and retained Mao’s deep suspicion of multilateral institutions and treaties. Even after Deng passed from the political scene in 1994, Beijing had trouble making friends due to its constant threats against Taiwan, its seizure of reefs to enforce its ludicrous territorial claims to the entire South China Sea, and other hostile acts.

Then, in 1997, the year of Deng’s death, Beijing began a strategic volte-face. By choosing not to devalue their currency, the Chinese prevented a round of potentially catastrophic competitive devaluations during the Asian financial crisis of the late 90’s. “For the first time in decades,” Kurlantzick writes, “China had taken a stance on a major international issue and had banked credit as a benign force in global affairs.” Shortly thereafter, Beijing officials began to re-conceive of their country as a da guo—a great power. By the beginning of this decade, China, under the stewardship of Jiang Zemin, had turned on the charm and begun to employ “soft power” as its main diplomatic tool.

The Harvard political scientist Joseph Nye, who coined the term “soft power,” defined it narrowly as the passive attractive force of a nation’s culture, values, and norms. But Kurlantzick notes that Beijing has expanded the concept to include almost any non-military effort at accumulating power. Charm Offensive, accordingly, looks at soft power through China’s enlarged understanding of the phrase.

Today, Chinese diplomats and officials have dropped their old, aggressive posture. They now talk about “win-win” relations, “Peaceful Rise,” and the “Early Harvest Package.” Beijing maintains publicly that it never interferes in other nations’ internal affairs and seeks prosperity for all. It provides aid for less developed nations and joins any regional and multilateral organization it can find (and, if none exists, creates them). International agreements? Beijing signs treaties, compacts, and covenants by the dozen. China, in short, wants to be everyone’s friend. (How do you say “Kumbaya” in Mandarin?)

Yet, as Kurlantzick notes, “Beijing offers the charm of a lion, not of a mouse.” It still acts high-handedly when it thinks it can get away with it (as when it dams the upstream waters of the Mekong River) and aggressively opposes those against whom it bears a grudge (constantly blocking, for instance, Japan’s attempts to build stronger ties in Asia). Neighbors are not its only targets: all over Asia, China uses its newfound strength to exclude the United States from regional economic and political affiliations (successfully convincing the Uzbeks to end American basing rights in their country, among other policy victories).

Is this behavior, however regrettable, merely the normal rough and tumble of great-power diplomacy? Perhaps. But Kurlantzick raises a far more pertinent question: can an authoritarian state work within the existing framework of a liberal international system? Charm Offensive is loaded with evidence that suggests a potentially disturbing answer.

Kurlantzick observes correctly that China courts and champions authoritarian leaders in the arena of global politics. It sustains hostile and unstable states—like Iran and North Korea—that threaten world order. It directly intervened to keep the contemptible Robert Mugabe in power in Zimbabwe, and it is stands behind the regime in Sudan that sponsors the genocidal janjaweed militia. Name any anti-democratic government in the world today, and you will find a connection to Beijing. China’s support of the world’s autocrats is so pervasive as to be creating, in Kurlantzick’s words, an “alternative pole” to the Western democracies.

Worse, China challenges one of the principles that define the West—free markets—with visible success. By producing spectacular economic growth for almost three decades, China shows that nations do not have to follow the free-market Washington Consensus in order to advance economically. Today, dictators and strongmen of all stripes take comfort in how the Beijing Consensus permits the maintenance of anti-democratic governance in a modernizing world.

Kurlantzick ends his fine book by making suggestions as to how Washington can compete with charmingly offensive China. His prescriptions range from the tactical—stationing at least one China watcher in every American embassy—to the strategic—reconsidering our opposition to multilateral institutions. But this second, broader piece of advice presents a problem. China is now a major player in nearly every regional and international organization, and it has garnered enough power in the international community to be able to block Western initiatives and everything but lowest-common-denominator solutions. Does this not suggest that multilateralism, for the U.S., is by now a dead end, at least where China is concerned?

Kurlantzick, at several points in Charm Offensive, scolds the United States for abandoning strategic interest in the world after the end of the cold war. His book reminds us that this is no time for America to forgo its leadership position or to accept consensus management, especially when that means empowering authoritarian states—like newly, charmingly offensive China.

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