Xi wants to be in charge

Xi wants to be in charge

Economic reform aimed at bolstering national security and power agendas is the norm in Asia these days, from India’s election of Narendra Modi to “Abenomics” in Japan. China has embarked on perhaps the most ambitious set of reforms, and is attracting Western critics loudly hoping for it to fail. But I think we’re all better off if China’s reforms largely succeed.

Since the March, 2013 plenum meeting of the Communist Party under newly anointed leader Xi Jinping, China has pursued simultaneous transformations in economics, finance, state-to-market relations and politics. Xi has made himself the most powerful Party chairman since Deng Xiaoping, at least on paper, in order to knock heads and implement tough changes.

Inevitably, some US commentators are eager to see Xi fail. A good example is an article by Joseph Bosco, a former aide to Donald Rumsfeld and now a think-tank China hand in Washington. Published by The Diplomat, Bosco says the West should worry about any campaign that enhances the effectiveness and power of autocratic China, particularly in light of China’s new, sometimes bloody-minded assertiveness. Read the rest of this entry »

Tuong: seeks closer ties

Tuong: seeks closer ties

Vietnam remains in the thrall of an ideologically Communist Party that has no intent to share power. But it is also caught in a tight spot.
Renewed tension with China, its ancient adversary, is causing Hanoi to drift closer to the US.

A former Marxist ideologue and advisor to Vietnamese prime ministers, Nguyen Phuoc Tuong, recently wrote an op-ed in the New York Times urging his compatriots to abandon notions of Communist solidarity and ally themselves with the US.

He spins this argument by saying Ho Chi Minh always sought such an alliance. Vietnamese leaders since the 1980s, perhaps dazzled by China’s growth story, or simply mentally boxed in by notions of Communist brotherhood, have abandoned historical wariness of China and toed Beijing’s line, a policy Tuong now says goes against Vietnamese interests.

Tuong cites the OSS, the precursor to the CIA, as the only Western paramilitary force that helped Vietnam fight the Japanese, and Ho’s admiration for the values of Washington, Jefferson and Wilson. In contrast, Russia and China may have pledged friendship to Vietnam but have betrayed it (China invaded in 1979). Vietnam must make a strategic shift and stand up to China by befriending the US.

While I would like to see things move this way, such an alliance is a fantasy. The US and Vietnam are already moving closer together, but there is a limit. The fact is that Vietnam needs the US more than the US needs Vietnam. Therefore the onus is on Vietnam to make the change happen. Vietnam’s government is, however, incapable of this.

The current prime minister, Nguyen Tan Dung, struggles to execute on any policy. He is the senior member of a triumvirate and is not master of his fate. Even if he enjoyed the power of, say, Xi Jinping or Vladimir Putin, he would still struggle to make his ministers and their mid-level officials obey. Read the rest of this entry »

To be told to the Royal Geographical Society

To be told to the Royal Geographical Society

The Royal Geographical Society Hong Kong is inviting me to give a lecture on Angkor on Tuesday, July 15, at 1/f Duke of Windsor Building, 15 Hennessy Road. I’ll also have a chance to sign copies of my book, “The Story of Angkor”. Hong Kong is the only official chapter of the RGS outside of the UK, and it’s an honor to be given this opportunity. For those of you in Hong Kong, if you are interested, please come! Details are on RGS’ website.

My colleague, FinanceAsia reporter Suzy Waite, interviews me about the book for Asia Hacks.

Suzy Waite: What inspired you to write about Angkor’s lost civilization?
JD: I was irritated that I couldn’t find a decent, easily readable book to explain everything that a tourist would want to know. I’m not talking about a guidebook with restaurant tips and canned details about how many meters tall is Angkor Wat. Nor a dusty academic tome. But that seemed to be the only stuff available. Either that, or I was off my meds one year.

Describe your first visit Angkor Wat. How did it affect you?
That was back in 1998. I was there the same weekend Pol Pot died. Back then, Angkor was surrounded by Khmer Rouge. You had to stick to the main paths because of landmines in the forest. I had to bribe soldiers at a checkpoint to see Banteay Srei. It was all very Joseph Conrad.

What impressed you most about the temple complexes?
What didn’t? It’s absolutely amazing.

When you started doing research for your book, what surprised you most about Southeast Asia’s former almighty empire? Why?
I thought it was a known history, and that if I did my research, sifting through those academic volumes, I could synthesize it into something digestible for the non-professors among us. Which I sort of did, except it turns out a lot of Angkor history is unsettled and our understanding of it is changing. It turned out to be a moving target. Read the rest of this entry »

Ready to be Occupied?

Ready to be Occupied?

I spent a lovely week on holiday in Spain and returned to Hong Kong to find speedily gathering clouds, soaring temperatures, crushing humidity and a general shortening of breath. While this is true of the weather, it’s also true of the political tensions gripping this semi-autonomous city of 7-plus million on China’s edge.

While I was away, hundreds of lawyers marched to protest a white paper issued in June by China’s State Council that demanded all Hong Kong administrators, bureaucrats and judges must meet the political requirement of “loving the country”. In Communist Party-speak, love of country equates to obedience to its fickle rule.

The white paper by the State Council, which is China’s executive cabinet, effectively tears up the “one country, two systems” ethos underpinning the 1984 Basic Agreement between Beijing and London on Hong Kong’s status until 2047. It suggests the Communist Party leadership is both tired of, and alarmed by, the desire by many Hong Kongers for a more representative political system. Read the rest of this entry »

An old man and his women

An old man and his women

I so enjoyed Yasunari Kawabata’s Snow Country that when I came across his The Sound of the Mountain in a bookshop in Singapore, I had to buy it. The Sound of the Mountain was written in 1970, 14 years after he produced Snow Country, and meditates upon old age. But for me, it was more interesting as a study on gender.

The story takes place in the 1940s, when Japan was occupied by the US; the losses of the war, the many dead, form a sad backdrop. Shingo Ogata, elderly and forgetful, wakes in the middle of the night believing he can hear the nearby mountain: “It was like wind, far away, but with a depth like a rumbling of the earth.” With this warning in the back of his mind, Shingo must navigate a crumbling family and a powerful regret: he married the sister of the woman he loved. His wife is a nag, his son is a drunken philanderer, his daughter returns home after a failed marriage with her irritating sprogs.

The bright exception is his bad son’s wife, Kikuko. She dotes on Shingo and their friendship masks a deeper affection which age and circumstance does not permit to blossom into physical passion. (This is one of those tightly controlled novels where more things don’t happen than do.)

Shingo is denied the peace and satisfaction of a happy family, which leaves him mainly bewildered, but he does attempt to intervene when he learns that his son’s mistress is carrying a baby. That too is a flop, and Shingo learns to accept things as they are. The novel ends with the family carrying on much as before, just as occupied Japan, still a long way from the boom years of the 1960s, also carries on. Read the rest of this entry »

Jokowi and Prabowo

Jokowi and Prabowo

One of Asia’s two important elections went the right way: Indians overwhelmingly voted for Narendra Modi and repudiated the corrupt, anti-growth Nehru-Gandhi cult. On July 9, Indonesians go to the polls. They too face a stark choice.

Whereas Modi is an unsympathetic figure who happens to carry the torch for vital economic reforms, Joko Widodo, the frontrunner, is someone easy to root for. He has electrified the country as a mayor and governor with a genuine sense of civic duty, and the chops to actually deliver – better roads, hospitals, and so on.

Jokowi, as he is known, eschews grandstanding. He has assembled a coalition of pluralist parties and is campaigning for strengthening rule of law, improving governance, reducing corruption and a more sustainable model of economic development.

His opponent is a fascist ex-lieutenant general whose campaign platform seems limited to calls for a tough-guy leader who can…do what is not exactly clear. Prabowo Subianto has pulled together a motley coalition of hardline Islamists and crony capitalists such as Aburizal Bakrie (himself a failed candidate) and other unappealing leftovers from the Suharto days. Read the rest of this entry »

General Prayutha reloads Thaksin's rice payments

General Prayuth reloads Thaksin’s rice payments

As martial law morphed into a military coup in Thailand, a friend defended the intervention.

“They” had to do something because the standoff between pro-Thaksin red shirts and royalist-Bangkok elite yellow shirts could no longer be resolved, he said.

We were enjoying a very nice meal in Hong Kong, and he is a good friend – and a pragmatic and smart one. So I sparred with care.

Demurring, I suggested the army was not neutral in this struggle; that the underlying issue was an elite ruling by deference trying to regain control over a general public which, through Thaksin Shinawatra, had come to see itself as morally equivalent. One person, one vote: loyalty must be earned, not assumed.

The problem with that, my friend said, was that Thaksin and his proxies had won the northeastern peasantry through handouts, rather than on any great principle. And the handouts were going to bankrupt the country. What Thailand needs – which Thaksin cannot deliver, but the Bangkok elite-cum-royalist cult might – is to urbanize the countryside, thereby leading to opportunity and economic growth. Read the rest of this entry »

Yang Yongliang's China nightscapes

Yang Yongliang’s China nightscapes

The tradition of Chinese landscape painting and ink drawing is nearly as old as Chinese culture itself. Today young Chinese and other Asian artists are updating it in exciting ways. They are using a millennia-old format to portray what is happening to a China in which there are no more landscapes to paint.

I got a taste of this at this year’s Art Basel in Hong Kong. This event showcases over 250 galleries, half from Asia, and is held in a convention center. So it’s crowded and garishly lit, and purely commercial.

But you can still enjoy the art; inevitably most of it prompts shrugs or is quickly unveiled as vulgar attempts to shock, but a handful of pieces engender wonder, and that makes the outing worth it.

With a large number of Chinese and other Asian artists featured, inevitably some of the work hews to conventional genres, such as landscape painting, which is probably the most accessible of all classic Chinese art. Because it is so easy to identify, contemporary takes on this are also easy to appreciate.

One of the most striking set of landscapes on show were by Yang Yongliang, who turned these into dramatic backlit panoramas. The Asian urban nightscape is one of the glories of modern global life, and Yang was clever to choose nighttime as his medium on the transformation of Chinese cities into vast metropolises. Read the rest of this entry »

Mindfulness & Murder

Mindfulness & Murder

After two and a half years of blogging, this is the 100th Asia Hack. Yay me.

Well, enough of that. Let me use this excuse to highlight another writer whom I would like to see do well. His name is Nick Wilgus and he is the author of a unique murder mystery series featuring a Thai monk.

The character Father Ananda was once a homicide cop in Bangkok. Tragedy and sorrow drove him to retire and join the sangha. When a novice monk is found in the monastery bathroom with his eyes gouged out and a thick candle stuffed down his throat, Ananda finds himself back on the investigation – but from the inside.

Wilgus, whom I’ve never met, wrote the first of a series of mysteries some time ago and the first one, Mindfulness and Murder, was even made into a movie in Thailand (pictured). My own publisher, Crime Wave Press, acquired the rights and republished it.

Although it fits squarely in the genre of murder mystery, Wilgus’ creation is otherwise hard to quantify. The Bangkok he depicted has venality, cruelty and corruption, but the author avoided the siren call of the girlie bars or ridiculous violence. Unlike Scandinavian crime fiction writers today, Wilgus had no need to confect darkness or sadism; he simply drew from the everyday reality that is life for many Thais.

Of course, Ananda’s a monk; he may struggle with his faith but he ultimately sticks to its principles. Wilgus is a former Catholic priest and also did a stint as a Buddhist monk. Mindfulness and Murder brought a rare insight into everyday life in a monastery. He also illuminated Buddhist thought gently and convincingly, without deferring to tropes. And “M&M” is a fun, pacy read.

So that’s it for post number one hundred. To my readers: thank you. More comments please, I enjoy hearing from you; and please let me know if you’d like to post a guest hack. I began blogging in anticipation of getting Gaijin Cowgirl published, as a sort of chore, but Asia Hacks has taken on a life of its own. It’s been fun, and I look forward to the next 100.


Secret World

Secret World

Nostalgia has prompted this post’s indulgent break from Asia Hacks’ usual themes. Two things recently took place that I missed: my grad school reunion in Bologna and Peter Gabriel’s induction into the Rock Music Hall of Fame. They are linked because it was while studying in Italy that I managed to get onto a Gabriel album.

The guy in the audience shouting “Peter…!” during the opening bars to “Steam” on Gabriel’s “Secret World Live” is me. Can’t prove it but that’s my claim. In 1994 he played in Modena, the next town over, and recorded and filmed the gig. The material from that evening turned out to be the concert album “Secret World Live”.

I had first seen Gabriel in 1986 (or maybe ’87) when he toured the States for his blockbuster “So” album. I was 16 or 17. My friends and I sung and shouted all night – and so did everyone else. I did the same in Modena. The crowd was passionate but a little more easygoing than in Philadelphia, so the shouts and calls during the quieter moments of the show were subdued. Except for one loudmouth Americano. But hey, if Gabriel hadn’t liked it, he would have edited me out.

My musical horizons have certainly broadened since high school but Gabriel’s work has remained relevant to me. He’s an odd sort of rock hero and avoids easy classification, which may be why his work is still distinct. He’s always been interested in technology, and has pioneered the use of electronics as well as that cymbal-less hi-hat drum sound that made 1980s pop cool.

His 1982 album “Security” remains for me one of his most interesting. That was a fertile time for pop music: the 70s, disco and New Wave were fading or over, but the 80s had yet to be defined. The crap that ultimately symbolized the era hadn’t really emerged and the great tunes that would ultimately rise above the Reaganite slosh were ascendant: “Every Breath You Take” by the Police, Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” and a few weirdo numbers that were riding the wave of early electronic pop. Read the rest of this entry »