Tuesday, June 04, 2019

What I Witnessed in 1989 in Beijing

"It cost us 20 million lives to win the rivers and mountains of China.  Do the students believe they can take them from us without payment?"
Remark attributed to Wang Zhen after declaration of martial law in May 1989

"We love the students"
Message scribbled in my notes by a citizen of Beijing in May 1989

As will be apparent from the material I've archived in this post, I was on the scene at Tian An Men Square in Beijing for a good number of significant events in 1989, including June 4th and also May 19, which might have turned out to be even more significant.

A few weeks after I returned to the U.S., I wrote an account of my experiences, submitted it to a national magazine, and received a nice rejection letter stating that “at this stage it does feel a little out of date, considering the volume of testimonies that have been published’.

Considering the saturation coverage the democracy movement had received in the Western press, I couldn’t argue with that assessment, so I tucked my account and my notes into an envelope, where they resided untouched for thirty years.

However, I revisited my old typewritten/handwritten/faxed/photocopied archive yesterday and decided to convert them into digital form and post them here to provide a documentary alternative to the June 4th fetishism (now supercharged by the hope that the CCP will be swept into the dustbin of history as a challenger to US pre-eminence) that infects the Western press and intelligentsia...

...or as Nicholas Kristof put it in one of the endless series of June 4th 30th anniversary commemoratives run by the New York Times in its crusade to embarrass and delegitimize the CCP:

[T]hose of us who witnessed Beijing Spring are confident that eventually, unpredictably, the tide of freedom will roll in again.
Well, some of us who witnessed Beijing Spring harbor certain suspicions that 1989 witnessed a new birth of authoritarianism.

Western nostalgia for 1989 is understandable, because it was the apogee of pro-American sentiment in Beijing.  When I was in the square, locals were inviting the United States to send aid in the form of B 52 bombers, missiles, and even the Mafia (to assassinate Li Peng and Yang Shangkun).  

But in my opinion the simplistic narrative of a democratic movement temporarily balked by authoritarian power simplifies the forces at work, ignores the post-1989 evolution of Chinese sentiment, and encourages the false hope that those (pro-American, regime-shaking) conditions can be conveniently replicated in the 21st century.

The CCP has spent decades studying, developing countermeasures, and evolving to make sure 1989 (and for that matter Tian An Men) don’t happen again.  And the U.S. has spent decades screwing up: stuff like bombing the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, cratering the prestige of liberal democracy through the Iraq War, Great Financial Crisis, Trumpismo, so on and so forth.

As preface to my 1989 material, I offer these observations concerning 1989 (and welcome correction since I have not immersed myself in the history of the movement):

Before the troops entered the city on the evening of June 3, the democracy movement had already been pretty much defeated.  The immense crowds had deserted Tian An Men Square, leaving it to a relatively bedraggled and disorganized group of dead enders.

When Zhao Ziyang visited the square on May 19 and told the students he had “come too late” he was probably expressing his regret that he had been completely outmaneuvered in the factional infighting in the Politburo and terminally botched his attempt, whether motivated by reasons of principle or ambition, to leverage the energies of the popular protests on behalf of his agenda.

I have not followed the minutiae of June 4th historiography, but I would be interested to learn who was the young man in military fatigues who hurried to the square on May 19 (but had his face shielded from cameras) to urgently announce Zhao Ziyang’s removal from the Politburo Standing Committee, thereby rallying the students who were poised to abandon the square that night. 
If Zhao dispatched the messenger, perhaps Deng Xiaoping was generous in simply putting Zhao in cold storage in Sichuan for the rest of his life.  And maybe history is generous in not condemning Zhao for encouraging the students to cling to the square and become a piñata for the PLA.

In my opinion, the 1989 movement was less of a “democracy movement” than a “populist movement” in keeping with the base meaning of the Chinese characters 民主 a.k.a. "rule by the people".  In its rhetoric it largely eschewed direct challenge to the CCP’s right to rule, and instead agitated for accountable rule, to be achieved through increased freedom of expression and association, not multi-party democracy and free elections. 

Undoubtedly for many activists the ultimate goal was to rot the CCP into oblivion through free speech, protest, and agitation and transition to a parliamentary system, but the formal mechanism was “petition” i.e. appealing to the better nature of the CCP’s better leaders to come up with solutions to the Party’s dysfunctional rule.  And Party rule in 1989 was pretty corrupt and pretty inept.

This approach produced a designation of "bad" CCP leaders (Li Peng, Yang Shangkun, Wang Zhen etc.) and the declared hope that "better" CCP leaders (Zhao Ziyang, Wan Li, Xu Xiangqian, Nie Rongzhen) would step up to champion Hu Yaobang's legacy and the student agenda.

Fatally, the ultimate "bad" CCP leader turned out to be Deng Xiaoping & he scotched any hopes of a favorable factional dynamic inside the CCP that would sideline the hardliners.

Tian An Men is very much Deng Xiaoping's bloody baby.

Student hopes of an elite-fracturing factional struggle within the CCP leadership elicited Deng Xiaoping’s otherwise inexplicable fear of a return to the Cultural Revolution and its mobilization of the entirety of Chinese society in political, social, and armed conflict.  

Perhaps for Deng, scuttling around in the caverns beneath Zhong Nan Hai and dreading confrontation with a factional mob reawakened unpleasant memories of his own experiences at the hands of Mao and the Gang of Four…and explained his anger and contempt at Zhao Ziyang for pandering to the students.

The message that Deng imposed on Zhao and the Party was the familiar one of unity of the elite core: hang together or hang separately.  It’s a lesson that the CCP has pretty much taken to heart after the near-death experience of 1989 and the calamity that afflicted post-Soviet Russia.  

And I believe Deng’s outlook determined the endgame of the protests: the bloody assault of June 3-4 and beyond.  The assault was massive and disproportionate so that every Party member was required to stand up, commit to the Party line with positive/extreme action, and share the responsibility…and the guilt.

The posted materials include the rejected magazine piece, Massacre of the Innocents, which I wrote in July 1989.

For historical interest I’ve also directly and completely transcribed the record I compiled immediately after the protests in my hotel from my scribbled notes made while out and about (sample of my field notes below with the statement in Chinese “We love the students” that a Beijing citizen emphatically wrote for me).

The record is reproduced without addition or correction (except for my tongue in cheek references of the protesters’ motorcycle auxiliary as “Deng’s Angels”; I provide the correction to “Flying Tigers”, the name they became commonly known by).  [Bracketed material] was written as part of the record in my hotel in 1989 immediately after the events to supplement and clarify my field notes.

Raw material of history, historians!

 The timestamped material is stuff I directly witnessed.  The other stuff either summarizes conversations with local interlocutors or presents my commentary at that time.

Final note: I am confident of the accuracy of most of my observations, except hearing the crowd sing “The Internationale” at 3:00 AM  on June 4.  When you’re tired and freaked out, your mind can play tricks on you.  I might have dreamed that one.

Massacre of the Innocents

I was on Chang An Avenue west of Tian An Men on the night of the massacre.  Shortly after midnight I walked beyond the XiDan Street barricade—two accordion buses pulled across the intersection.  Down the avenue toward the west I could hear the continuous popping of automatic weapons, and see muzzle flashes and the distant orange glow of a burning bus.  The broad avenue was dotted with anxious knots of people smashing paving stones and pulling apart traffic lights in a desperate search for weapons.  Suddenly, a young man fell in the middle of the street.  A crowd hurriedly gathered around him, picked him up amid shouted instructions, and rushed to a nearby hospital.  The gunfire grew in volume and intensity, and the scattered groups of people were swept off the avenue in a wave of panic.  Tear gas began to fill the air.

I turned and found myself looking into the eyes of a young woman.  She was in her best summer dress and awkwardly gripping two lumps of rubble torn from the sidewalk.  She was struggling to keep control of herself, but her eyes were filling with tears and her voice was cracking.  “Do you see what they’re doing?” she sobbed.  Can you imagine they would do such a thing?  Please, you must go back and tell what you saw.  Please.”  As a chorus of voices echoed her, I was led to the center of the avenue where the young man had fallen and saw the splash of fresh, crimson blood near the median.  Shortly thereafter, the authorities blacked out the western district and the military column began its assault on the intersection.

I had been in and out of Beijing on business several times in the month prior to June 4.  Every time I came back to the capital, I would follow the thousands of people who would stream into Tian An Men Square to visit the students there, read the banners, and gather under the streetlights for excited discussions of politics and strategy.  Every night the city shared a mood dictated by conditions in the square—exhilaration, exhaustion, indignation, or anxiety.  The citizens glowed with pride and self-respect, and the democracy movement acquired an aura of predestined success.

In its earliest stages, the student demonstrations were characterized by a high degree of discipline and organization.  During the hunger strike, direction of traffic in the center of the city was for all intents and purposes surrendered by the police to the students’ Marshals’ Committee, headquartered on the steps of the History Museum east of the square.  Roadways were demarcated by lengths of white cord and reserved for the ambulances carrying a continual stream of hunger strikers to the hospitals. Captains were identified with white headbands and dispatched to the intersections to clear the way and maintain order.

As the scope of the demonstrations grew, the students were joined by workers marching under the banners of their factories , and “independent business men” on their motorcycles forming the famous “Flying Tiger” squad.  With the students receiving open and sub rosa support from the media, government bureaucracy, and even the CCP, it seemed the square was becoming the fulcrum for a truly national political movement.  The enthusiasm probably reached its apogee on May 19, the night martial law was declared.

On that night, it appeared the students were prepared to abandon both the square and their hunger strike.  Around midnight the marshals formed a human chain leading out of the southeast quadrant of the square and began directing the withdrawal of hundreds of students.  One after the other, various university delegations dissolved their distinct, tightly knit encampments, and streamed out of Tian An Men Square.

In the middle of this process a three-wheeled pedicab, several young men balanced precariously on its bed, jounced into the square near the Monument to the Martyrs of the Revolution.  One of their number, dressed in military green, pulled out a battery-powered megaphone and announced to the crowd what he identified as “most correct news”.  His face shielded from TV cameras by the arm of a colleague, he proceeded to details the events of that afternoon’s meeting of the Politburo Standing Committee—the rejection of Zhao Ziyang’s conciliatory approach, his removal, and the ascendancy of Li Peng’s hardline clique.  Moments later, as if to confirm this extremely accurate and timely announcement, the government loudspeakers crackled to life and began booming out the government’s declaration of martial law.

A buzz of indignation ran through the crowd and the squads, which had been leaving, hesitated and returned.  The square became a hive of activity, with a stream of speeches over the students’ PA at the Monument, and spontaneous parades around the perimeter of the square on foot, under banners, or on bicycles with arms linked  Meanwhile, factory trucks filled with defiant workers flashing the V sign began rumbling and down the avenue.

Within the hour, reports were received that the army was attempting to enter the city from the west.  Student teams began to rush off in trucks and bicycles, and the Flying Tigers raced along the avenues unrestricted by the traffic police.  The streets filled with excited people exchanging news and rumors, and hitching rides on trucks headed west.  Sometime trucks pulled away with stragglers trapped in the grasp of passengers on the flatbed, forcing them to do a frantic quickstep to get on board.

Their objective was twenty four army vehicles stopped about 6 miles west of Beijing, around a floodlit traffic circle called Gong Zhu Fen.  I arrived to find the glum and hapless soldiers surrounded by crowds of hectoring students reading statement for their benefit, and for the TV cameras.  The surrounding crowds surged with excitement and energy.  Truckloads of students and Flying Tigers performed ecstatic victory donuts around the circle and roared back into the city.  As dawn filled the east, the residents of Beijing began to appear, walking, jogging, doing Tai Qi, or airing their thrushes in cloth-hooded cages.  The first morning bus lumbered down Chang An Avenue was stopped by a crowd of students imploring the driver to join the general strike—and he did.

Walking homeward, I reached the official party residence—Zhong Nan Hai, west of the square—as the soldiers trooped out to the great flagpole in the cool, pale morning for the daily raising of the colors.  The doorway was hung with tattered student banners and a press of haggard young people surrounded the squad.  An expressionless captain fixed the PRC flag to the lanyard and hoisted it.  He stiffly snapped a salute, and the students joined in a ragged rendition of the Chinese national anthem.  It seemed as if a great and fundamental change had occurred.

The first week of martial law began with a flush of optimism.  Citizens gathered in the square every night to protect the student demonstrators, and the streets were filled with the thunder of the Flying Tigers, which had grown into an immense squadron of nearly 250 Hondas, Suzukis, and mopeds.  So long as the army didn’t enter the city, every sunrise was a victory, and the downfall of Li Peng was predicted daily.

However, it is easy to see in retrospect that the students’ cause was lost on May 20, at the declaration of martial law.  The hunger strike was abandoned and the students were left without a concrete program or strategy to oppose a government which refused to engage in any sort of dialogue.

Meanwhile, the government consolidated direction of the army during meetings in Wuhan with the commanders of the military districts.  PLA forces were stationed in TV and newspaper offices to reestablish control over the media.  It was common knowledge that troops were infiltrating into the center of the city through a honeycomb of tunnels which connect the Forbidden City, Great Hall of the People, and History Museum to secure locations outside the city.  Enormous military forces—estimated at well over 200,000 strong—were rushed to Beijing and massed in the suburbs.

In the city, work units began to tighten control over their personnel and their vehicles, and compiled detailed records of pro-democracy activities.  The Flying Tigers were crippled by arrests (informants had joined their nightly processions and noted their license numbers) and thus the students lost their reassuring thunder—and mobility.  A temporary tax of 200% on inward remittances cut off most of the demonstrators’ funds from Hong Kong, and petty harassments such as interruption of water supplies to the square further drained their strength and resolve.  Finally, the government made its first overt move against the movement, arresting three members of the workers’ independent union on June 3. 

The tragedy of June 4 was rehearsed the night before—as farce.  At 2:00 AM I was awakened by somebody bicycling under my window shouting “Comrades! Get up! Get up!”   Moments later I heard the synchronized slap of thousands of tennis shoes as an immense column of soldiers trotted down Chang An Avenue.  They were without rifles or military jackets, and extraordinarily young-looking.  In fact, I first mistook them for a contingent of Young Pioneers, the communist party youth corps.  I ran ahead toward the Beijing Hotel and saw that an excited crowd had gathered at the Dong Dan intersection.

As the column approached the people frantically began to pull the median dividers across the street to block the troops’ advance.  At first they tried to erect their barricades across the road too close to the head of the column, and the troops brushed them aside.  The citizens ran down the road and repeated the process fifty yards onward—with the same result.  Finally, in front of the Beijing Hotel, two municipal vehicles drove up to block the road to the accompaniment of excited cheers from the crowd.  At the same time the vanguard of the troops allowed themselves to be herded into the bicycle lane and sandwiched between its divider and the sidewalk fence.  They were enveloped by a crowd of shouting, grasping people and their discipline quickly cracked.  Young soldiers broke from the column either to join the people or escape the harassment, and others, trapped in the center of the column, began pitching their hats and gear into the air.  Some clambered over the fence and began straggling out of town on the sidewalk. Finally, someone from the square appeared with a megaphone and began shouting instructions, which were universally ignored.  As the column dissolved, the crowd roared in unison “Go back! Go back!”  A pedicab drove off toward the square with a meagre pile of trophies—hats, jackets, and so on—for a victory lap.

There was immediate speculation that this fiasco had been organized by the government in order to discredit the unreliable units of the Beijing Military Command which had taken part in the march.  Less attention was paid to the fact that this inept thrust had demonstrated the tactical helplessness of the student movement.  After the fall of Zhao Ziyang, the students were clearly bereft of information concerning government actions and troop movements.  The streets had been cleared of the Flying Tigers and commandeered trucks, and student messengers had to traverse the vast distances of Beijing municipality by bicycle.  Students from the local colleges had, in large part, returned to their campuses, leaving the square to arriving students from outlying cities—who were perhaps more extreme, less organized, and with no clear strategy other than to cling to the square until a hoped-for meeting of the Standing Committee of the People’s Congress and a presumed political solution.  Finally, the students and the people of Beijing were exhausted, worn down by tension, exhilaration, and an endless succession of sleepless nights.  The next night brought the whirlwind they were totally unprepared for.

On the afternoon of June 3, I walked down Chang An Avenue and through the square.  The main road was extensively barricaded and virtually impassable to motorized traffic.  Near the Zhong Nan Hai party compound there were unsettling signs of violence from a skirmish an hour before: three smashed vehicles, a traffic kiosk with its windows knocked out, glass littering the intersection—and seven anxious police trapped in a van by an angry crowd.  One man came up to me and showed a blunt, grey-brown trophy—a tear gas canister.  It was the first time force had been used in the city center.

In front of the Great Hall of the People, I came across a hollow rectangle of several hundred determined-looking troops in full battle dress.  A young man wandered through it with blood streaming copiously over his face and shirt from a scalp wound, his mouth gaping and hands raised in a universal gesture of lamentation.  A murmur ran through the crowd but no one spoke or stepped forward.

That night around midnight, having heard a report on CNN of new troop movements, I made my way past the barricades to the square once more.  There was a swirl of disassociated activity going on, with the main student PA at the monument competing with another, in the northern quarter, which was ineffectually attempting to interest the crowd in the dedication of “Democracy University”.  I paid my final respects to the Goddess of Democracy and followed a stream of angry young people striding westward on Chang An Avenue toward the Zhong Nan Hai compound.  For the first time I saw people carrying clubs—actually pathetic switches torn from the sapling by the road—and gathering piles of broken bricks. The entrance to the compound was ringed by tense and angry people confronting a line of troops in battle dress.

I was waiting for a shout, a push, or a slogan which would send the crowd surging against the troops, but it never came.  Instead, we watched two young men engage in a painstaking and farcical attempt to drape a ripped sheet over the security camera mounted on a lamp pole across from the compound entrance.  Shortly after midnight they succeeded in clambering up the pole and stuffing a plastic pail over the lens, and were rewarded with a half-derisory, half congratulatory cheer.

In the next moment we hear a distant wave of rumbling and popping which might have been summer thunder, but turned out to be the first sounds of the army assault from the west at Mu Xi Di.  Twenty minutes later I found myself outside the barricade at Xi Dan Street as the armed column began sweeping down the avenue to crush the democracy movement in the center of the capital.

June 4 was not the triumph of age over youth, or the past over the future.  It was the victory of the party elders led by Deng Xiaoping—creators and masters of the party-state juggernaut, with decades of revolutionary experience—over naïve students and untested second generation party bureaucrats.
Declaration of martial law hamstrung the students’ movement while concentrating authority and effective control in the hands of the hardline Martial Law Command.  But bringing the army to Beijing served a broader purpose.  It created an atmosphere of intense political crisis which enabled Deng Xiaoping to initiate an extensive and draconian purge of Chinese society which is still going on today.

This opportunity brought with it a historical conundrum—how to mobilize the army and still maintain control of it.  Addressing this problem, Deng Xiaoping also showed that the innocent patriotic optimism of the students was no match for the old men who had created and manipulated the PLA for half a century.  As the democracy movement learned to its bitter cost, in China, the Party—despite its ideological impotence and the bankruptcy of its political and economic leadership—is the only organization capable of exacting obedience from China’s fractious military.

The traditional approach—splitting the PLA into competing armies isolated in garrisons far from Beijing—would not serve, since units had to be brought into the capital.  Instead, Deng Xiaoping allowed the Martial Law Army to become a vehicle for the ambitions of President Yang Shangkun and his family, while bringing in dozens of neutral or hostile armies and creating a welter of competing loyalties and ambitions to be manipulated by Deng’s Central Military Commission.

The massive mobilization effectively neutralized the threat of unilateral PLA action but in the process virtually assured a violent and costly military solution to the unarmed civilian occupation of Tian An Men Square.  It was rumored that the 27th Army—commanded by Yang Shangkun’s son-was designated to lead the assault and threatened with 2 years’ imprisonment as a unit if it did not carry out its orders and reach the square on the morning of June 4.  In the event, it took something more than six hours and well over 2000 lives.

The column advancing into Tian An Men Square from the west was a lethal motorcade of armored personnel carriers and transports filled with troops.  It rammed through the barricades at Xi Dan and established a strong point at the intersection, continually spraying the approaches with automatic rifle fire in the air, at the feet, and at chest height.

I took cover in an alley parallel to Chang An Street.  It was filled with people sheltering from the continual hail of gunfire outside.  A pedicab creaked by on the way to the hospital, with a man lying on the bed in the back.  He was naked from the waist up, and very still.  A white towel pressed against the center of his chest showed a brilliant red dot.

I spent the next two hours huddled in a tiny courtyard near the intersection with a group of grim young Chinese.  Some embraced silently, others murmured in an undertone beneath the continual crackle of rifle fire about casualties, tactics, and the future.  Two were wounded, and the group tried to turn its concentration to treating them.  We watched under flashlight as a foot with an arterial wound pulsed and bled slowly through its bandages into a porcelain basin.  An old couple brought out a minute bottle of iodine, which was diligently inspected for its expiration date and conscientiously applied.  Finally, one of the residents took a door off its hinges to serve as a stretcher and the wounded young man was sent off with bearers and guide on the perilous journey to the local hospital.

About 3:00 AM, a powerful chorus filled the air—a mass of people on Chang An Street were singing the “Internationale”.  The gunfire rose in a crescendo to meet it and after a few minutes the voices fell silent.  I thought, this is what the end of the world must sound like: choirs and machine guns.

Shortly thereafter, the two-hour barrage of gunfire ceased and quiet filled the intersection.  There was a gentle ‘whump’ and the sky over the rooftop in front of us filled with orange fire and black smoke.  We ventured outside and found the intersection deserted except for three burning buses and a few onlookers.  I struck out on the two-hour walk back to the hotel.

As I crossed the Bei Hai bridge to the northwest of the Forbidden City, I could faintly hear the government loudspeakers from Tian An Men echoing across the lake, ordering the students to obey the martial law army.  Hardfaced old men and women had appeared on the sidewalks on the back streets, perched on miniature bamboo stools.  Passersby warned me in anxious whispers to “Be careful!” since I was being followed, and directed me down alleys and side streets.

Dawn broke over a fearful and subdued city.  A pedestrian told me 3000 were dead.  I ducked into my hotel through the garage entrance at 5:00 AM, just as dozens of tanks and armored personnel carriers rumbled past its door.  The democracy movement was crushed and the massacre of the innocents, for that night, at least, was over.

It is eerily appropriate that very few students died inside Tian An Men Square.  The real targets were outside—not only the thousands who died on the roads leading into and surrounding the square, but the hundreds of thousands of students, workers, and small-time businessmen, the bureaucrats, intelligentsia, and reporters who dared to challenge the party’s hegemony.

As the depth and extent of the purges becomes clearer, the suspicion grows that the bloodshed of June 4 was not born of accident, panic, or military necessity.  Through gross provocations, whether by incompetence or design, the authorities preserved a nucleus of defiant young people in the center of the city, which could justify the assault and the cynical post-facto discovery of a counter-revolutionary conspiracy.

Certainly, Deng Xiaoping had to avoid the hollow triumph of peacefully occupying an empty square; very possibly he had to move up the timetable for the final assault to prevent his army’s advance from being outpaced by the retreat of the rapidly ebbing democracy movement.  The unpopular and isolated hard-line junta needed martial law in order to consolidate its control over the party and state organs.  It needed victims, and found them, young and eager, on the streets of Beijing on the morning of June 4, 1989.

Little more than a month has passed, and the Chinese government is trying to bury the memory of the tragedy in Tian An Men Square beneath a mountain of words.  Nevertheless, it is doubtful that the tautological perfection of Communist propaganda will make the people forget that their government failed them so completely—and so needlessly.  If the students were the soul of China, that soul is now scarred and embittered.  

During that final night, as we watched the laden stretcher wind away down the alley, an old woman turned to me and said bitterly, “Without the students, China has nothing.  Come back in two years and you will see.  No civilization, no nation.  There will be nothing left.  Nothing.”

Below my notes from mid-May to early June 1989

Thursday, February 21, 2019

“Vice”, Dick Cheney’s Ghost, and the Lies of America's Team China War

One thing missing from the movie “Vice” is the Cheney China obsession.

Not just Dick Cheney.  Lynne Cheney.

In the movie Lynne Cheney is portrayed as the hard-driving, gender-disadvantaged powerseeker who upgraded Dick Cheney from underperforming smalltime Wyoming sociopath to, well, successful nation-destroying sociopath.

Well, Lynne Cheney was obsessed about the China threat.  

In 2007, James Fallows told his readers about a conversation he had with Gary Hart concerning Hart’s stewardship of the U.S. Commission on National Security in the 21st Century.  The Commission told incoming president George W. Bush the biggest threat was terrorism, a conclusion that was seen as rather prescient at the time.  But, Fallows wrote:

At the first meeting, one Republican woman on the commission said that the overwhelming threat was from China. Sooner or later the U.S. would end up in a military showdown with the Chinese Communists. There was no avoiding it, and we would only make ourselves weaker by waiting. No one else spoke up in support.

The same thing happened at the second meeting -- discussion from other commissioners about terrorism, nuclear proliferation, anarchy of failed states, etc, and then this one woman warning about the looming Chinese menace. And the third meeting too. Perhaps more.

Finally, in frustration, this woman left the commission.

"Her name was Lynne Cheney," Hart said. "I am convinced that if it had not been for 9/11, we would be in a military showdown with China today." Not because of what China was doing, threatening, or intending, he made clear, but because of the assumptions the Administration brought with it when taking office. (My impression is that Chinese leaders know this too, which is why there are relatively few complaints from China about the Iraq war. They know that it got the U.S. off China's back!)

Well, concerning Fallows casual assumption that the Chinese welcomed the Iraq war, not so fast. 
Because Plan Cheney for the Middle East was founded in the perception of the China threat, and the need to put a chokehold on China’s energy imports.

Robert Dreyfuss wrote an article for The American Prospect back in 2006 (remember when there was actually critical objective reporting on US China policy?  Good times!) titled Vice Squad, in which he detailed the Cheney Middle East energy/China fixation:

For the Cheneyites, Middle East policy is tied to China, and in their view China's appetite for oil makes it a strategic competitor to the United States in the Persian Gulf region. Thus, they regard the control of the Gulf as a zero-sum game. They believe that the invasion of Afghanistan, the U.S. military buildup in Central Asia, the invasion of Iraq, and the expansion of the U.S. military presence in the Gulf states have combined to check China's role in the region. In particular, the toppling of Saddam Hussein and the creation of a pro-American regime in Baghdad was, for at least 10 years before 2003, a top neoconservative goal, one that united both the anti-China crowd and far-right supporters of Israel's Likud. Both saw the invasion of Iraq as the prelude to an assault on neighboring Iran.

In passing it’s interesting to see some current names pop up in Dreyfuss’s account of Cheney’s shadow government.  Like Victoria Nuland, who was Cheney’s national security adviser and was supposed to be Secretary of State in the Hillary Clinton presidency.  Holy horseshoes!  And Aaron Friedberg, who was Dick Cheney’s director of policy planning, is currently a big noise on the China hawk side of things today. 

Of Cheney’s two Asianists identified by Dreyfuss, Stephen Yates (ex-NSA, fluent in Chinese because he did the Mormon missionary thing in Taiwan) is out of government and runs a consulting service coyly titled DCIA Advisory and is apparently doing pro-Taiwan stuff interfacing with the Trump administration; and Samantha Ravicher is a senior advisor to the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and was appointed by Trump as Deputy Director of the Intelligence Advisory Board. 

I’d say that current US China war fixation is built in part on Dick Cheney’s legacy.

What I think is interesting is how this history gets buried in an effort to paint the Chinese leadership as paranoids when it comes to US intentions, or that suspicion about US intentions is a cynical totalitarian ploy to gin up an external threat to justify internal repression.


And you don't have to lean on James Fallows'  casual take on Cheney's determination to strangle the Chinese pandadragon in its cradle a.k.a. My impression is that Chinese leaders know this too

Around about 2003, I remember reading in a highly confidential Chinese publication—a CAAC in-flight magazine fer Chrissakes—about PRC anxieties over the “Malacca dilemma”.  That’s the fear that the Malacca Straits could serve as a choke point to cut off Chinese energy imports.

This anxiety has informed billions of dollars of Chinese strategic diplomacy and investments from the natural gas pipeline deal with Russia, the crude and product pipelines from Burma to southwest China (avoiding the Malacca Strait, naturally) and the first, quixotic iteration of the CPEC: the idea of either pumping or raillifting Middle Eastern crude from Pakistan’s Gwadar Port over the Himalayas to Xinjiang.

It is one of the great exercises in geopolitical hucksterism abetted by the big media outlets that sold the US injecting itself into the South China Sea disputes and conducting provocative Freedom of Navigation operations (FONOPS) as driven by the desire to protect a vital global commons and US allies from Chinese predation. 

Here's my dismantling of Team China War's talking point: Good News World!  You Can Stop Worrying About the South China Sea

The South China Sea is vital only as an essential waterway for transport of Middle East energy to southern Chinese refineries.  Full stop.

And the main impact of a conflict in the South China Sea would be to discombobulate PRC seaborne energy imports, which is why the PRC is keen to avoid a war in the SCS while the US Navy is keen to incite one.

As to how could a conflict get started?  I go there in this episode of China Watch, and note the interesting and sinister parallels between a provocation packaged as a US Navy FONOP adjacent to the South China Sea in 1964 and the current campaign to make the SCS FONOPS more provocative and more likely to spark an incident.

The true story of the Gulf of Tonkin incident, only declassified in 2010 (46 years after the fact!) provides some guidelines on US intentions and tactics when the US Navy is tasked with inciting a war in Asia.

Here’s the link to the Youtube trailer for my China Watch episode 5000 Ways to Die: America Tightens the Noose Around China’s Neck.  You can either navigate to newsbud.com to subscribe and view the full episode and the entire China Watch archive, or you can go into the Youtube page description and find a link to rent the current episode on Vimeo.

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

October 2018 Taiwan Mainland Affairs Council Public Opinion Polling on Cross Strait Relations

This polling was completed in the second half of October 2018, before the DPP got waxed in the local elections, and also before the reboot of Tsai Ing-wen's cross strait policy at New Years'.

First up: an area graph showing popular attitudes towards unification, independence, or maintaining the status quo.

Popular attitudes on reunification, independence, or maintaining the status quo, area graph

Starting from the bottom:

Maintain status quo in perpetuity (navy blue): 22.3%
Maintain status quo, then see whether to go reunfication or independence (robin's egg blue): 31.1%
Maintain status quo, then go for reunification (yellow): 16%
Maintain status quo, then go for independence (purple): 14%
Immediate independence (green): 8.6%
Immediate reunification (red): 3.1%
Don't know (grey): 4.8%

All in all, 83.4% for the status quo in one form or another.

 Here's the historical trend line graph for that data with the  same color key.  At the end of the graph, one can see the uptick in the "maintain status quo, then go for reunification" (yellow line) response, exceeding for the first time the "maintain status quo, then go for independence" (purple).

I'm guessing this bewildering spike in enthusiasm for reunification provided the impetus for Xi Jinping's speech pushing reunification that Team China War rather desperately spun as the "OMG HE'S PREPARING TO INVADE" moment.

Popular attitudes on reunification, independence, or maintaining the status quo, line graph
As for Tsai Ing-wen's protestations that she represents "the status quo",here's the most dramatic shift in the polling over the last couple years: the respondents who think the pace of cross strait relations is too slow has doubled to a plurality of all respondents (the green line): 39.7%

Too slow (green line): 39.7%
Just right (red line): 30%
Too fast: 10%
No opinion: 17.2%

I take this as a repudiation of Tsai's spin that refusing to endorse the 1992 consensus (and thereby putting relations with the PRC in the deep freeze while tiptoeing toward independence) was the right way forward for Taiwan.
Attitudes toward speed of exchanges across the straits

Finally, does the PRC hate the people of Taiwan, or just the government?  63% believe the PRC doesn't like the government (blue line), 40% (red line) think the PRC doesn't like the people either.

Perception that the government on the mainland is unfriendly toward us

It can be seen that the "hate the people" line is pretty steady while the "hate the government" line has not unsurprisingly spiked during the Tsai administration.

With all the usual caveats about polling, this is the picture of a risk-averse electorate and the government is going to have a hard time moving the needle toward independence.

The CCP's best move, on the other hand, is not to overplay its hand (especially by playing footsie with the KMT) and let domestic politics play out to Tsai's disadvantage.

Combine the dispiriting polling on cross-strait relations with Tsai's less-than-thrilling approval numbers, and Tsai emerging from the 2020 presidential campaign without a mandate (or even losing to the KMT candidate) is a possibility.

That's not going to make Team China War very happy, since the Pentagon is thirsting to serve as the shield for the vigorous island democracy battling for de jure independence, not standing idly by as the Taiwan electorate muddles through its options for appeasement.

For anxious hawks, the remedy is clearly Escalation!  and trying to sell the story that Taiwan's existential threat is from a Chinese invasion and subversion, not from the CCP using its economic weight to abet Taiwan's Finlandization.

That's why you get special pleadings like the Open letter to democratic Taiwan which landed in Tsai Ing-wen's inbox as she worked to reboot her administration after the November elections:

Taiwan is at a crossroads as never before. It is under an existential threat by the People’s Republic of China. While we respect the reality that Taiwan, like all democratic polities, has a range of domestic issues that must be resolved, that democratic process should proceed in a manner that does not detract from the overall national unity in the face of the larger threat to Taiwan’s existence as a free and democratic nation.

Taiwan under threat! is the keystone of Randy Schriver's narrative for China containment.  But as of November, the numbers didn't show it.  If Tsai can't move those numbers on her own, what's the Pentagon gonna do?

Wednesday, December 26, 2018

Debunking the China Debt Trap Myth, Sri Lanka/Hambantota Edition

[I've come to the opinion that a not insignificant chunk of China coverage that currently pops up in the Western media is an info op curated by China hawks in order to promote and exploit further polarization between the US bloc and the People's Republic of China.  And some of the info ops, including the articles in the big media outlets, don't hold up under close examination.

I extracted this post from the script of a China Watch show I did a year ago.  The "Hambantota debt trap" myth has served as the foundation for a year's worth of "Belt and Road" threatmongering for projects in Pakistan, Zambia, Maldives, and even Ecuador.  The data concerning Sri Lanka's debt trap--and who set the trap--makes for interesting and enlightening reading.  The China Watch episode of December 17, 2017 Donald Trump's China Hawk Clown College Now in Session, can be viewed by newsbud subscribers or rented via Vimeo.  CH 12-26-2018]

Hambantota is a Sinhalese expression meaning “flapdoodle peddled by China hawks and distributed by credulous anti-PRC journos”.  The flapdoodle in question is the assertion that the Hambantota Port is a scheme to create a debt trap against the island nation of Sri Lanka. 

The case is asserted that the PRC funds costly Belt and Road infrastructure projects the recipient can’t afford, then takes them over as strategic assets when loan repayments can’t be met.  Case in point: Sri Lanka, which is crushed by crippling forthcoming loan repayment obligations equivalent to 95% of its annual revenues.

Stories in the Western press on Sri Lanka’s debt crisis are usually illustrated by the Hambantota Port project on the south coast of Sri Lanka.  The Sri Lankan government just finalized an agreement to lease the port, a notorious white elephant, to the PRC on a 99 year agreement.

It looks like there is indeed a conspiracy here: a conspiracy by the ex-president of Sri Lanka, Mahinda Rajapaksa, to build an impregnable economic, patronage, and political base in his rural home province on the remote southern coast of Sri Lanka.  Rajapaksa borrowed money from the PRC to build a world class port, a world class international airport, a world class cricket stadium, and world class highways linking the prosperous north to impoverished Hambantota.  Didn’t work.  All of these magnificent facilities are unused and generating virtually no cash flow to pay back the loans to the PRC.

Rajapaksa was strongly pro-PRC thanks to the unstinting diplomatic and material support the PRC provided him during his war of annihilation against the Tamil insurgency.  In a detail neglected by fans of the world’s biggest democracy and current US Indo-Pacific bestie India--but rather important to our story--the Hindu Tamil insurgency was originally supported by India, trained by India’s Research and Analysis Wing, and, in a classic case of blowback, ended up assassinating Indian president Rajiv Gandhi.  

When Rajapaksa needed help to crush the insurgency, he turned to the PRC, not India, and when Rajapaksa wanted to build his follies at Hambantota, Hu Jintao—not fearsome BRI overlord Xi Jinping—was there to help.

However, Rajapaksa lost his bid for re-election in 2015 partly as a result of alleged Indian finagling, and the new government had no interest in trying to make Rajaipaksa’s hometown boondoggle turn the corner.

The whole “Hambantota debt trap” story plays out in an interesting way.

Sri Lanka faces a massive debt repayment burden of almost $4 billion dollars in the coming year; but the Hambantota port and airport account for less than $200 million of that.  That’s just 5% of the total.

Most of that obligation is now gone because the PRC took over 80% of the port in a debt for equity swap.  And under the terms of the lease, the PRC has to make a payment of $292 million dollars immediately out of total lease payments of $1.2 billion.  

That means that the Hambantota deal has freed up about $450 million dollars in cash for debt service next year.  Pretty sweet.

 The Hambantota deal was apparently a factor in the IMF’s decision to free up another quarter billion dollar tranche of loans on December 7 to help Sri Lanka with its balance of payments problem.

All in all, the Hambantota boondoggle is turning into something of a net positive for Sri Lanka.  And, if you look beyond the teeth gnashing by China hawks, the PRC’s move is a reassuring indication to BRI partners that the PRC will step up for refis and work outs of really crap projects.

In addition, India put in a bid for $300 million to operate the white elephant Rajapaksa Airport next to the port.  Vital counter chess move to deny air terminal facilities to a potential PRC naval base?  Or the price tag for staying in the political game in Sri Lanka by providing the government with another $300 million dollar windfall?

The other interesting number is this: Sri Lanka’s sovereign external debt is $50 billion.  Only $8 billion of that, about 16%, is held by the PRC.

Sri Lanka’s big debt repayment headache is not the Chinese.  It’s that the Sri Lankan government sold somewhere between one to two billion dollars of sovereign debt almost every year at near junk interest rates for rebuilding and social peace, well, social buy offs, after the catastrophic civil war with the Tamils.  

There was some economic growth going on but not enough to service those loans.  They’re starting to mature and guess what?  Those government bonds are held by international investors and, unlike the PRC government, those international investors aren’t interested in delay, rescheduling, renegotiating, or conversion.

So Sri Lanka’s in the arms of the IMF for bridge financing—linked, of course, to demands for domestic revenue and financial reforms—so it can go back to the international lending well again to roll over the debt it still can’t pay.

Who created the debt trap for Sri Lanka?  The usual suspects: money center banks like Citigroup, Deutsche Bank , HSBC and Standard Chartered and fund managers primarily in the US and Europe.