Saturday, October 27, 2018

Sri Lanka, Rajapaksa--and China--Back in Geopolitical Play

[The news that the president of Sri Lanka, Maithripala Sirisena, had dumped his prime minister and instead elevated ex-President Mahinda Rajapaksa--whom he had defeated in the 2015 election--gives me a chance to re-up a piece from 2012 on Sri Lankan politics and China.

Sirisena's election was the result of a pretty blatant piece of jiggery-pokery by RAW, India's notorious and notoriously ham-fisted Research and Intelligence Wing spook outfit.  

The circumstances were so obvious that they were reported in the Western press as well as South Asian outfits--see Indian spy's alleged role in Sri Lankan president's election defeat--but nobody made a big fuss about this foreign influence/election meddling/creeping tentacles of illiberal authoritarianism story because Rajapaksa was in tight with China and India and the United States both wanted him out.

The close ties between the People's Republic of China and Rajapaksa, by the way, account for the construction of the notorious white elephant Hanbantota port in Rajapaksa's home town during the era of Hu Jintao.

I provide a thoroughgoing debunking of the "Hanbantota debt trap" myth eagerly peddled by the China-containment crowd--and keystoned by a New York Times article transparently designed to use the issue to frustrate Rajapaksa's return to power--in this China Watch piece of mine over at Newsbud (subscription or Vimeo rental required).

Now Sirisena, instead of doing good client-y things for India, accused RAW of trying to murder him...or not, and brought Rajapaksa into the government.   

Assuming that India has not shed its addiction to ham-fisted intervention in its near beyond (Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka) and the People's Republic of China is still interested in exploiting Indian overreach (despite the apparent warming of PRC-Indian relations), the jostling in Sri Lanka might get pretty severe.

Below is a piece I wrote on the situation in Sri Lankan geopolitics back in 2012.  Basically, at the cost of billions of dollars and thousands of lives, Rajapaksa and the People's Republic of China allied to annihilate the Tamil insurgency while the West discretely looked the other way.  Now that the threat had been removed, it was time to coordinate an Indian/US campaign to get Rajapaksa out and get Sri Lanka out of China's sphere of influence and back into the Indian fold.

The Sirisena/Rajapaksa/RAW drama is simply the latest chapter in a long, bloody tale of Indian overreach and PRC opportunism.

As a final note, now the "War on Terror" is in the rear-view mirror as a Western geopolitical concern and we're into the "China Cold War" space, there might be some interest in resurrecting support for "struggles for national determination" in places like Xinjiang in order to wrongfoot the PRC.

 Though the actual fate of the Uyghurs--as opposed to their geostrategic utility--may not be the decisive factor in U.S. calculations, it is worth remembering that the PRC participated in perhaps the only successful counterinsurgency war in this century, and is presumably ready to apply the lessons learned to Xinjiang if the need arises.

This piece appears on China Matters by permission of Asia Times, the copyright holder.  Parties interested in reposting this piece should contact Asia Times for permission. 

PL 10/27/2018] 

Clouds on the Sri Lankan horizon for China

China's relationship with the regime of Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa is rock solid. Chinese arms were instrumental in the defeat of the Tamil Tigers in 2009 that brought their insurgency to an end after 27 bloody years. China is the largest provider of foreign aid and investment to the island.

And on March 22, when the United Nations' Human Rights Council (UNHRC) considered a resolution censuring Sri Lanka for shortcomings in its investigation of possible violations of international law during the war, and a deficit of credible post-conflict reconciliation initiatives, Beijing voted "no" - while India voted "yes".

Thanks in significant part to India's vote and example, the resolution - which the Sri Lankan government was extremelyanxious to see fail, and had dispatched a 72-person team to Geneva to lobby against - passed.

Sifting through the wreckage, Sri Lankan media noted that, if abstentions were counted with the "no" votes, the resolution had carried by only one vote - India's.

As for China, as the Ceylon Daily News put it - albeit reporting on remarks of the less than influential "Listeners Association of China Radio International in Sri Lanka" - "China's support at UNHRC highly appreciated". [1]

By a calculus that was made with considerable frequency in the Indian media, the UNHRC vote was an own goal by India, needlessly antagonizing Sri Lanka and pushing it even more closely into the arms of China.

Some characterized the vote as little more than rather ignoble truckling to the Congress Party's coalition partner, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), whose power base is the ethnically Tamil state of Tamil Nadu - the motherland of Sri Lanka's Hindu Tamils, who have often been at loggerheads with the indigenous, Buddhist Sinhalese who make up 74% of Sri Lanka's population. [2]

Supporting the narrative of Indian dithering was a letter from Prime Minister Singh to Rajapaksa stating that India had insisted that the resolution had been watered down, or as an Indian briefer told the media:
"We have always had a problem with the Western approach of telling countries that they 'must accept' or 'must do' something." That is why India insisted that the language of the resolution be changed to remove that element," he added. "Once we got that, we voted for it." [3]
However, this picture of apparent Indian fecklessness is belied by the fact that the UNHRC resolution was tabled by the United States, which is eager to promote Indian interests in South Asia. The United States insistently lobbied India to vote for the resolution. The Tamil factor is virtually non-existent in American politics, so it can safely be said that the United States was not heedlessly hoisting India on a cleft stick in the service of some other American agenda.

The US initiative appears to have been a calculated effort to wean India away from fear of its neighbors playing "the China card" to extort diplomatic and economic concessions from New Delhi. What we seem to be seeing is New Delhi, under American tutelage, employing the Barack Obama administration's preferred tactic for dealing with problematic regimes: identifying weak points to exploit, ratcheting up international and multilateral pressure on those points, and then balancing the pressure with occasional concessions and positive initiatives.

In other words, the old carrot and stick, with the stick coming first.
It means that, in a rather risky move, the United States and India are threatening to put Sri Lankan government's intensely fraught relationship with its restive Tamil minority into play if Colombo does not direct its politics and diplomacy into channels that Washington and New Delhi deem appropriate - and Beijing regards with utter dismay.

Rajapaksa - and China - are to a large extent victims of their own success in utterly crushing the Tamil Tigers insurgency.

In 2009, the Sri Lankan army did not pursue an objective of defeat of the Tamil Tigers. Its goal was absolute annihilation.

In the end-game of the war, the Tigers - and hundreds of thousands of ethnic Tamil civilians - were cornered on a tiny spit of land on the northeast coast in the region of Vanni. Military targets, civilians and hospitals were pounded with artillery; then the army moved in from three sides and, according to credible reports and evidence, fought their way in with little if any regard for civilian casualties, resulting in perhaps as many as 40,000 deaths.

Vellupillai Prabhakaran, the leader of the Liberation Tigers of Talim Eelam, or LTTE, and most of the top cadres died in battle or shortly afterward. For some, surrender does not appear to have been an option. Captured Tamil fighters and members of the Tiger political and bureaucratic apparatus - because the Tigers had exercised de facto control over a significant swath of territory at one time - were summarily liquidated. Victims included Prabhakaran's 12-year-old son, who was apparently executed by the Sri Lankan army, together with five escorts who were trying to deliver him to safety or surrender.

The Western world and India were willing to turn a blind eye toward the bloody excesses of the Sri Lankan army in 2009 because the Tigers were a truly nasty bunch that had worn out its geopolitical welcome.

In the early years of the movement, Tamil self-determination had developed a significant international cachet along the lines of the Palestinian Liberation Organization. In 1987, India parachuted food parcels into the Tamil stronghold of Jaffna in order to help rebels withstand a Sri Lankan army siege.

India's Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) trained Tamil fighters - including the Tigers and five other groups that RAW, in its wisdom, decided it could play off against each other - in camps in southern India as part of a strategy to project Indian power into Sri Lanka.

Instead, the Tigers assassinated the leadership of the pro-Indian Tamil militants and absorbed their fighters into the LTTE. In 1987, India - with Sri Lankan consent - sent a peacekeeping force into northern Sri Lanka that quickly came into conflict with its erstwhile clients, the unrepentantly militant Tamil Tigers.

India fought a bloody and unsatisfying campaign against the Tigers before withdrawing in 1990. Subsequently, Prabhakaran ordered the assassination of premier Rajiv Gandhi. The killing - ironically carried out by a militant trained in a RAW camp - guaranteed the hostility of the Indian government toward the Tigers.

The LTTE allegedly pioneered the use of the suicide vest, engaging in almost 400 attacks over 20 years, including attacks that killed Gandhi and, in 1993, the president of Sri Lanka, Ranasinghe Premadasa. The LTTE ethnically cleansed the Muslim population of the areas it controlled, expelling an estimated 72,000 people.

In a notorious incident, LTTE cadres bound, blindfolded and executed 600 Sri Lankan police officers who had surrendered to them on the instructions of the Colombo government in a confrontation in 1990 during a ceasefire period. The LTTE's sympathizers explained these incidents as matters of military and revolutionary necessity, but the fact remains that the LTTE, a militant organization organized along Leninist principles, were not loathe to take the bloodiest path out of their challenges.

European powers, especially Norway, still tried to broker a peace deal. However, after 9/11 armed struggles of national liberation were passe and the Tamil Tigers were slotted squarely in the terrorist category, classified as a terrorist organization by 32 nations including India, the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, and the European Union. Their sources of funding and arms were attacked and, when the end came, the UN and the Western powers made only the most ineffectual efforts to broker a settlement that would forestall the utter destruction of the LTTE.

However, it was China and not the West that played the crucial role in supporting the final Sri Lankan army campaign against the Tigers.

Major Neil Smith, Operations Officer of the US Army and Marine Corps Counter-insurgency Center from 2007 through 2009, rather enviously described the no-holds-barred "Rajapaksa Model" and the Chinese support that it relied on:
Beginning in 2005, China stepped in to provide an additional $1 billion of military and financial aid annually, allowing Sri Lanka to sever the strings attached to Western aid regarding the conduct of anti-LTTE operations. In exchange for the aid, China received development rights for port facilities and other investments ...

China's aid enabled the Sri Lankan government to attain the military superiority needed to defeat the LTTE. The Sri Lankan military budget rose by 40 percent between 2005 and 2008, and the army's size increased by 70 percent, an addition of nearly 3,000 troops per month.

China provided more than simple financial support. It and several other states furnished the government with crucial political cover in the United Nations. Western countries long demanded that Sri Lanka respect human rights and avoid civilian casualties as a condition of continued aid. The government viewed these conditions as a hindrance to its ability to defeat the LTTE. The substitution of Western military aid with that from China enabled the government to disregard Western concerns about human rights and pursue its campaign of attrition unimpeded. China prevented introduction of resolutions at the United Nations critical of Sri Lanka's renewed offensive, giving it a free hand in the conduct of its operations despite the protests of human rights groups and Western governments. [4]
Cornered in Vanni in early 2009, the LTTE used the over 200,000 civilian refugees on the peninsula as human shields, stationing cadres to shoot those who tried to escape and forcibly impressing children as young as 14 into the Tigers for use as front-line cannon fodder.

The last weeks were a nightmare as the Sri Lankan army advanced behind barrages of artillery fire that, among other locations, apparently targeted the makeshift hospitals that, at the beginning, may have had wards for Tiger fighters but at the end were scenes of total chaos and undifferentiated horror as doctors, without antibiotics, anesthetics, or transfusion supplies, and no other means to treat many wounds other than amputation, hacked off limbs of shrapnel victims with butcher knives and stacked the arms and legs in piles.

Rajapaksa made the ludicrous claim that the final battle against the Tiger stronghold was "the biggest hostage rescue operation in the world".

The Red Cross, whose attempts to deliver aid were largely frustrated by the Sri Lankan government, described the final days at Vanni as "an unimaginable humanitarian catastrophe". [5]

Post-war, the dominant picture has been of Sinhalese dominance and Tamil subjugation.

After the fall of Vanni, 250,000 traumatized Tamil internally displaced people (IDPs) were herded into a gigantic camp called Menik Farm under miserable conditions for detention, screening, and, for the particularly unlucky, designation by balaclava-clad Tamil turncoats for harsh interrogation.

The International Crisis Group recently described the situation in the defeated Tamil territories:

The slow but steady movement of Sinhala settlers along the southern edges of the province, often with military and central government support and sometimes onto land previously farmed or occupied by Tamils, is particularly worrying. These developments are consistent with a strategy - known to be supported by important officials and advisers to the president - to change "the facts on the ground", as has already happened in the east, and make it impossible to claim the north as a Tamil-majority area deserving of self-governance.

Deepening militarization of the province presents a threat to long-term peace and stability. Far inexcess of any legitimate need to protect against an LTTE revival, the militarization of the north is generating widespread fear and anger among Tamils: indeed, the strategy being executed runs the risk of inadvertently resurrecting what it seeks to crush once and for all - the possibility of violent Tamil insurrection. The construction of large and permanent military cantonments, the growing involvement of the military in agricultural and commercial activities, the seizure of large amounts of private and state land, and the army's role in determining reconstruction priorities are all serious concerns. [6]
Today, Rajapaksa presides over a triumphalist Sinhalese state that is largely defined by its near-total victory over the Tamil Tigers, a heavy handed occupation of Tamil regions in northern and eastern Sri Lanka, a reputation for dispatching unmarked white vans to disappear critics, and a commitment to manipulating and intimidating the press that places it in the unenviable position of 163rd on the Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom Index. [7]
Its primary public relations preoccupation is deflecting attention from the civilian victims at Vanni, since acknowledgment of their victimhood and the circumstances behind it would quite possibility implicate the Sri Lankan Army and its entire command structure up to the president in complicity in war crimes.

In March of 2011, the United Nations made a powerful effort to breach the political and legal defenses of the Rajapaksa government with its "Report of the Secretary General's Panel of Experts on Accountability in Sri Lanka".

In addition to persuasively documenting the suffering at Vanni, the report made the explosive assertion that, because of the inadequacies of the government's quaintly named Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission in particular (deficient in "best practices of truth seeking"; "deeply flawed ... does not meet international standards for an effective accountability mechanism" sniffed the report) and the Sri Lankan legal system in general in getting to the bottom of the war crimes issue:
The Secretary General should immediately proceed to establish an independent investigative mechanism ... to monitor and access the extent to which the Government of Sri Lanka is carrying out an effective accountability process ... conduct investigations independently into the alleged violations ... collect and safeguard for appropriate future use provided to it that is relevant to accountability for the final stages of the war ... [8]
In other words, the recommendation is that the UN conduct an independent investigation that undermines the claims of the Rajapaksa administration as the savior of Sri Lanka, openly discredits the military and threatens its personnel with prosecution ... and preserves the dossier for "appropriate future use" ie criminal prosecution against Rajapaksa and his associates for war crimes if and when they leave office, no longer enjoy immunity, and are vulnerable to the judicial attentions of an unfriendly, opportunistic, or righteous successor government.

No wonder the Rajapaksa government fought the March 22 UN Human Rights Council resolution that uses the expert's report as its foundation: if implemented, it is not only a gun to the head of Sri Lanka's government and military elite; it is an attack on Sinhalese chauvinism that would provide desperately needed political oxygen to the Tamil opposition.

International pressure on the Sri Lankan government was intensified by the release and extensive international circulation of two documentaries in 2011 and 2012 by Britain's Channel 4 on the theme of "Sri Lanka's Killing Fields." Non-Governmental Organizations arranged screenings of the original program for US, British, and EU parliament politicians. [9]

The programs appeared to be the result of close synergy between Channel 4 and sources in the UN, with the documentaries replicating the narrative of the expert's report and intensifying it through the presentation of horrific videos, including trophy footage of summary executions and the apparent aftermath of rape-murders taken by Sri Lankan army soldiers.

Chinese support in the Security Council should protect the Rajapaksa government from international war crimes prosecution. However, the main threat of the human rights campaign is political, not legal.

With the Tigers and the moral and political conundrum of their enthusiastic commitment to terrorism out of the way and the focus lasered on the brutality of the Sinhalese regime, Sri Lanka's embattled Tamils - and the vociferous Tamil diaspora - are once again advancing their claims to improved treatment, greater political autonomy ... and meaningful support from the international community.

It is a call that New Delhi, now that Sri Lanka's Tamil community has shed the hateful incubus of the anti-India LTTE, is prepared, however cautiously, to heed.

It is a call that the United States, for its usual complicated reasons, appears ready to echo.

As the Sri Lankan situation evolved, the US State Department gently prodded the Sri Lankan government on the issue of reconciliation and kept a wary distance from Tamil politicians. As late as November 2011, the State Department snubbed a delegation from the Tamil National Alliance, which has disavowed Tamil independence and represents Tamil interests in the Sri Lankan parliament. UN chief Ban Ki-moon did not meet with the delegation, either.

This was apparently a demonstration, sincere or not, of US and UN willingness to let Sri Lanka put its own house in order before tabling the UNHRC resolution.

However, by late February 2012 the Obama administration's key point man for Sri Lanka, Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs Robert Blake met with the "Tamils for Obama", a rather marginal and misnamed political grouping whose primary enthusiasm is for Tamil independence rather than President Obama's policies:
"We also handed him a copy of our Referendum in Sri Lanka to Gain Self-determination for Tamils," said a press spokesman for Tamils for Obama, "It is modeled on the one that was recently voted on in southern Sudan, and which led to the creation of the new country of South Sudan. We hope for a similar referendum and result in northeastern Sri Lanka.

"We also gave him a second copy which we asked him to pass along to Secretary of State Clinton. He promised it would be done, and immediately passed the copy along to a subordinate official to take to Secretary Clinton." [10]
As to where all this combination of domestic oppression and righteous international finger-wagging might lead, maybe it is "Springtime in Colombo", as the Lanka Standard speculated on February 20:
There is also a growing apprehension within the government that they are at the receiving end of a possible strategy of "Regime Change" propelled by external intervention. Government members have been seeing a foreign hand not only in the issue of war crimes but also behind the economic unrest that is growing amongst the general population ...

In his Independence Day speech, President Rajapaksa warned against those who aspired for an "Arab Spring" type of uprising… [11]
An Arab Spring-style eruption against Rajapaksa is unlikely in the short term. Despite his government's excesses, he still basks in the aura of the victory over the Tigers and strong support from a Sinhalese majority that has limited sympathy for the Tamils. At the same time, he is headed into a political cul-de-sac.

His government lacks the credibility, will, and resources to achieve reconciliation with the Tamils. If the Sri Lankan government's callous policy of oppression of the Tamils and military occupation and creeping Sinhalization of the Tamil homelands backfires and a new political crisis erupts, any attempt to repeat the military solution of 2009 will be met with a united chorus of international condemnation and Chinese arms and support will avail him little.

It will be India that possesses the ability to act as an honest broker and offer a measure of protection, support, and a future to the embattled Tamils of Sri Lanka.

This Indian role - and displacement, at least in part, of Chinese influence in Sri Lanka - is something the United States will be keen to promote, using its ability to orchestrate pressure on the Sri Lankan regime.

One gets a picture of the levers available to the United States when one considers that Sri Lanka purchases over 90% of its oil from Iran and currently relies on a waiver graciously granted by the United States in order to continue its imports without suffering sanctions to its banking system.

America's benevolence has its limits, however.

Assuming that Rajapaksa continues with his current policies of Sinhalese chauvinism and political repression, whatever he tries to do in the area of reconciliation will probably be judged inadequate by the United States - until he is enticed into a process of reconciliation that place India's good offices, and its ability to manage the Tamil brief more effectively than the Sri Lankan government itself - at the center of Sri Lanka's ethnic politics.

Ironically, it may be China's contribution to the destruction of the Tamil Tigers that opens the door to New Delhi's return to a position of significant influence in Sri Lanka and a decline in Beijing's clout.

1. 'China's support at UNHRC highly appreciated', Daily News, Mar 29, 2012.
2. Karunanidhi's 'Eelam dream' is a curse on Lanka Tamils, FirstPost, Mar 23, 2012.
3. Resolution 'balanced', Manmohan tells Rajapaksa, The Hindu, Mar 24, 2012.
4. Understanding Sri Lanka's Defeat of the Tamil Tigers, NDU, 4th Quarter, 2010.
5. Report of the Secretary-General's Panel of Experts on Accountability in Sri Lanka, UN, Mar 31 2011.
6. Sri Lanka's North I: The Denial of Minority Rights, Crisis Group, Mar 16, 2012.
7. Sri Lanka's sinister white van abductions, BBC, Mar 14, 2012. Sri Lanka drops in World Press Freedom Index, Colombo Page, Jan 26, 2012.
8. Report of the Secretary-General's Panel of Experts on Accountability in Sri Lanka, UN, Mar 31 2011, Page 120.
9. Sri Lanka's killing fields, Channel4, mar 14, 2012.
10. Tamils For Obama Meets With Blake On 29th Feb, Colombo Telegraph, March 27, 2012.
11. Sri Lanka: Government fears strategy of "Regime Change" through external intervention, Lanka Standard, Feb 20, 2012.

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

August 2018 Republic of China Mainland Affairs Council Survey of Popular Attitudes on Cross Strait Relations

click on individual graphs to enlarge.  Image source here.

Trendlines for Unfication, Independence, and Maintaining Status Quo

Maintain status quo, decide later

Maintain status quo perpetually

Maintain status quo, independence afterwards

Maintain status quo, unification afterwards

Unification as soon as possible

Immediate declaration of independence

Percentage Chart, Popular Attitudes for Unification, Independence, or Maintaining Status Quo
Don't know

Unification as soon as possible

Immediate declaration of independence

Maintain status quo

Maintain status quo, afterwards unification

Maintain status quo, decide later

Maintain status quo in perpetuity

Popular Attitudes Concerning Speed of Exchanges Across the Straits
Too slow

Just right

Don't know

Too fast

Popular Perception of Mainland Government Hostility Toward Us
Hostile toward government

Hostile toward people

Thursday, June 21, 2018

"Little Reunion": Eileen Chang gets another turn in the revisionist meatgrinder

"Eileen Chang's fractured legacy" is a piece I wrote for Asia Times way back in 2009, when Chang's "Little Reunion" received its first posthumous publication in Chinese to much excitement in Taiwan and also, remarkably, on the Chinese mainland.

Now the English translation has come out and has occasioned a spate of articles seeking to place Eileen Chang and her apolitical and alienated artistic vision in a contemporary context.

The most noteworthy effort is probably "Before the Revolution", an essay by Louisa Chiang and Perry Link at the New York Review of Books. 

It places the "Little Reunion" fad of a few years back in the context of  "Republican fever", which the authors interpret as a subversive nostalgia for the Republican era of intellectual ferment and artistic achievement that contrasts with the "ethical and intellectual wasteland" the authors see in the contemporary PRC.

I think a more authentic context for the Eileen Chang craze was an effort by the CCP to present itself as heir to the achievements and aspirations of "Greater China" including the KMT years on the mainland and the Chinese community on Taiwan.  

This effort culminated in the massive 2015 China Victory Parade in Beijing, commemorating the 60th anniversary of Japan's surrender in World War II.  The KMT officially declined its invitation but an ex-chairman of the KMT did attend, inviting accusations that the now-pro-mainland KMT was complicit in CCP attempts to erase the leading role of the KMT (and minor role of the CCP) in resisting Japan during the Second World War. 

On the Eileen Chang front, the PRC gave full support to Taiwanese filmmaker Ang Lee's NC-17 Shanghai production of Lust, Caution (Eileen Chang's first go-round at wrestling with the issues of shame and complicity that she addressed in Little Reunion) in order to burnish the PRC's credentials as a Greater China nexus for cultural achievement, while insisting that the final, degrading denouement get fudged in the interests of Chinese national honor.  I wrote about it here

So observations of a spontaneous public "Republican fever" breaking out in the PRC should be taken with a grain of salt, especially as they pertain to Eileen Chang.

The "Greater China" gambit fizzled with the defeat of the KMT in the Taiwan election of 2016 and the election of independence-oriented Tsai Ing-wen (who had criticized KMT participation in the parade).  

Now, as can be seen from "Before the Revolution", the shoe is on the other foot, with critics of the CCP working to diminish and delegitimize the CCP as ruler of China, let alone the spiritual heir of "Greater China".  Or as Chiang and Link put it, "The Republican era, whatever its flaws, seemed the last in which an authentic China could be found."

Historical nihilism (the code word for denial of CCP legitimacy and achievements) backatcha!   Who will triumph in this goat rodeo of competing Hegelian-idealist historical narratives?

Eileen Chang, however, is not a particularly effective poster child for the glories of the Republican era.  Leaving aside the acrid taste of shame and degradation that infuses "Little Reunion" at her sexual complicity with a Japanese collaborator, the key modern trend in Eileen Chang studies--and the factor that delayed publication of Little Reunion until after her death--was a "Republican craze" on Taiwan that denigrated her importance and achievements in favor of her ex-husband Hu Lancheng.

The phenomenon persists today, with famed filmmaker Hou Hsiao-hsien collaborating with one of the leading lights of the anti-Chang faction to diminish her legacy.

It appears Eileen Chang wrote "Little Reunion" in large part to process her feeling that she had been effectively marginalized and rejected both by the Communist mainland and Republican Taiwan.

So, if you want to tie the Eileen Chang story into a neat historical bow, you can say she belongs to no one...and everyone.

This piece is reproduced at China Matters with the permission of Asia Times, which holds the copyright, and cannot be further reproduced without permission from Asia Times.

CH, 6/21/2018   

Eileen Chang's fractured legacy
By Peter Lee

In 1976, Eileen Chang's close friend, Stephen Soong, earnestly advised her not to risk her reputation as a cultural icon - and her position in the Taiwan literary market - by publishing an autobiographical novel entitled Little Reunion.

"You might not only lose your reputation, your livelihood in the Taiwan literary arena might end and the goodwill accumulated over many years might be swept away. I'm not saying this just to alarm you. I have a lot of experience in PR, I've seen a lot, and I'm not pulling these fears out of thin air."

What a difference 30 years - and a hit movie, a sea-change in  cultural attitudes and the rise of a pan-Greater China cult of celebrity - can bring.

Little Reunion was published this year in Taiwan (February 24), Hong Kong (February 28) and China (April 8) editions in a whirlwind of publicity and sales.

Little Reunion is on the top of the best seller lists in Taiwan (where it is in its eighth printing) and Hong Kong (sixth printing).

In China, the first printing of 300,000 copies sold out before the official data of publication and a second printing of 100,000 has been ordered. The Taiwan version (in traditional characters) came out a month earlier and has already been bootlegged by China's indefatigable intellectual-property pirates. The false promise of the downloadable text has been used as a lure by China's equally indefatigable propagators of computer malware.

Well-heeled mainland buyers are also acquiring copies of the Hong Kong and Taiwan editions to evade possible censorship of political and sexual themes and get their Eileen Chang undiluted and uncut (the publisher insists that the mainland version has not been snipped).

It's an odd fate for an instinctively elitist, introspective and apolitical writer who wrote her greatest works in Japan-occupied Shanghai in the 1940s and died alone in Los Angeles in 1995.

Chang is revered as China's first truly modern writer. Her sensibility could be described as the acute social and emotional observation of Cao Xueqin (author of Dream of the Red Chamber) filtered through the sensibility of Virginia Woolf. She secured her fame with a series of jewel-like short stories of manners, morals and folly including The Golden Cangue and Love in a Fallen City. In 1957, the pre-eminent Chinese literary critic in the West, Columbia University's C T Hsia, anointed her as the most gifted Chinese writer to emerge in the 1940s.

Beyond Chang's literary merits, her emergence as a Greater China literary celebrity can be attributed in part to the extremely public unwinding of her intensely fraught bond with a traitor, hanjian, her first husband, the pro-Japanese collaborator, Hu Lancheng.

Hu Lancheng was a literary figure of some note in 1940s China. He threw in his lot with Wang Ching-wei, the one-time revolutionary, patriot and Kuomintang (KMT) big-wheel who broke with Chiang Kai-shek and was installed by the Japanese as the head of a puppet regime in Wuhan.

Hu was installed in the regime's Ministry of Propaganda and charged with publishing Da Chu Bao, ie The Great Chu News, an attempt by the Japanese to evoke memories of the glorious and ancient independent state of Chu as an alternative focus for the loyalties of the residents of central China - as Manchukuo was meant to encourage the centripetal tendencies of Northeast China.

During the period of Japanese occupation, Hu spent a good part of his time pursuing literary and ultimately physical companionship in Shanghai with Eileen Chang. They married in 1943.

Once Hu had bagged his literary trophy, he went to Wuhan to run Da Chu Bao - and engage in a dalliance with a 17-year old nurse, Zhou Dexun.

Intelligent and charismatic, Hu was always aboil with ideas and ambitions.

Hu styled himself another Liu Bang - the brilliant, bootstrapping rebel who overthrew the established order in the state of Chu 2,000 years before and established the Han Dynasty.

He actively pursued the patronage of the Japanese officers who ran the regime more or less behind the scenes, obtaining their backing for a Whampoa-style military academy in Wuhan that would churn out cadres loyal to Hu.

In 1945, when Wang Ching-wei died and the Japanese surrendered, Hu's moment was at hand. However, the military academy hadn't started up and Hu had no muscle or money of his own.

Hu tried to jawbone the commanders of the Chinese forces holding onto Wuhan into establishing it as an independent power center - instead of promptly handing it over to Chiang Kai-shek - and using the local military stockpiles provided by his Japanese friends to conduct a multi-year guerilla war in central China's mountains.

However, his proposals fell on deaf ears and within two weeks the demoralized and war-weary commanders in Wuhan capitulated to the Chunking government.

Hu, his transgressions upgraded from feckless collaborator to genuine traitor against Chiang Kai-shek's KMT, went on the run, eventually bringing his criminal baggage and philandering habits to Wenzhou for a brief and disastrous reunion with Eileen Chang that has achieved legendary status.

Chang had learned of Hu's whereabouts from a mutual friend and surprised him in his sanctuary. The visit was 20 days of pure misery. Hu, preoccupied with rationalizing and coping with the utter collapse of his ambitions and the threat of execution hanging over his head, clearly regarded Chang as a closed chapter in his life.

During his fugitive wanderings through central China, Hu had taken up with an accommodating 40-year-old widow Fan Xiumei, whose education had gone no further than the local sericulture school. Hu apparently did not miss the intellectual stimulation; more importantly, Fan provided him with the added security of making it possible to travel as a couple, and also assiduously tended to his needs.

Chang tried to make the best of it during awkward meetings in her hotel, and offered to paint Fan's portrait. But when it came time to sketch Fan's mouth, she was unable to proceed, telling Hu she could not continue because “[Fan's] mouth looked more and more like yours”.

Chang wasn't even second in line in Hu's catalog of girlfriends. Hu proclaimed his continued infatuation with the young and delectable Zhou Dexun, who was by this time incarcerated in Wuhan.

When Chang tried to force Hu to choose between her and the absent nurse - whom it was clear that Hu would never see again - Hu refused. Rejected, miserable and tearful, Chang returned to Shanghai, aware that her marriage, such as it was, was over.

Hu justified and excused his personal and political transgressions with reference to his unique genius. In a passage written in the 1940s, Hu emphatically stated his personal and artistic credo - no apologies and no regrets:
I write for my own pleasure and not for any reason. My attitude toward revolution is the same. Some people can make mistakes that aren't crimes; there are people who can do good, but that doesn't make them great.
After the Wenzhou sojourn, Hu escaped to Japan where he scratched out a living courtesy of his erstwhile Japanese patrons. Through the 1950s and 1960s, he pursued a career as a writer and lecturer in Japanese exile and infuriated Chang by publishing his memoir, This World, These Times, which placed Chang in an overlapping continuum of eight girlfriends and provided a detailed and self-aggrandizing account of the excruciating sojourn in Wenzhou.

Chang divorced Hu in 1947 and later remarried. However, the matter of Hu agitated her and continued to inform her work - work that she dithered over, revised frequently, and, in the case of Little Reunion, could not bring herself to publish in her lifetime. (She died on September 8, 1995.)

Prior to Little Reunion, the most high-profile workout of Chang's issues with Hu Lancheng is the short story Lust, Caution, on which the Ang Lee film of the same name is based.

Eileen Chang's short story dealt with a failed assassination attempt on a high-level Chinese collaborator. The plotters rely on an idealistic young actress/student, Wang Chiachih, to serve as a sexual lure to trick the target, Mr Yee, into fatally disregarding his normal security precautions.

The conspiracy goes pfft as the discombobulated Wang responds to a genuine but superficial display of affection by the middle-aged, toad-like apparatchik she has endured two years of effort, danger and degradation to murder, and impulsively warns him to flee the approaching assassins.

Yee escapes and immediately issues the order to round up Wang and her accomplices. The conspirators are interrogated and executed within a few hours; and Eileen Chang provides the merciless coda:
He was not optimistic about the way the war was going, and he had no idea how it would turn out for him. But now that he had enjoyed the love of a beautiful woman, he could die happy - without regret. He could feel her shadow forever near him, comforting him. Even though she had hated him at the end, she had at least felt something. And now he possessed her utterly, primitively - as a hunter does his quarry, a tiger his kill. Alive, her body belonged to him; dead she was his ghost.
Behind Chang's nervous, sardonic laugh is the ghost of her relationship with Hu Lancheng.

The toxic relationship receives a further workout in Little Reunion, an explicitly autobiographical roman a clef that deals both with Chang's messy, privileged childhood and her traumatic romance with Hu Lancheng.

The title itself is a mocking inversion of the "Big Reunion", the joyful celebration when a scholar's triumph at the imperial examinations guarantees the power and prestige of his household and allows the wives and concubines to take a break from their habitual backbiting and jealousy to enjoy their shared success.

By contrast, the "Little Reunion" presided over in Wenzhou by would-be culture hero Hu Lancheng served up only a sordid threesome stewing in shame and resentment.

In the book, Chang's stand-in describes her thoughts as she deals with the reality of her philandering, unapologetically no-good husband:
There was a carving knife in the kitchen - too heavy. There was also a knife for cutting watermelon that lay in the hand more comfortably. Aim the blade at that narrow golden spine ...
Instead, Chang decided to write a novel about Hu, which she was unable to bring herself to publish.

In fact, in 1992 she mooted destroying Little Reunion as recorded in a letter she wrote to Stephen Soong. The decision by Roland Soong, the respected proprietor of the blog EastSouthWestNorth - who inherited the role of Chang's literary executor from his deceased parents - to publish Little Reunion therefore provoked an agitated outcry among the guardians of Eileen Chang's reputation.

One Taiwanese literatus angrily called for the book "not be bought, read, or reviewed".

However, Little Reunion was clearly a work ready for publication - its imminent release had been promised by Chang's Taiwan publishers, Crown, numerous times.

Chang's anxiety and ambivalence over the work had little to do with its merits and lot to do with the re-emergence of her bad penny ex-husband, Hu Lancheng, at the center of the Taiwanese literary community.

Reeling from the shock of president Richard Nixon's recognition of China's government, the KMT government was happy to garner support wherever it could find it in the diplomatic, political and cultural realms. In a let bygones be bygones spirit, Hu was allowed to enter Taiwan in 1974 and lecture at an unaccredited institution outside Taipei

After reading the manuscript of Little Reunion, Stephen Soong wrote Chang:
Don't forget, there's a time bomb: that worthless fellow who, through whatever route, managed to get to Taiwan and become an instructor at the Chinese Academy of Literature …if Little Reunion is published, it will be like delivering a fat pig to the door. He will welcome this opportunity to make a fuss and write all sorts of wild stuff …A drowning man will grasp at anything, and if he's able to grab onto you he'll drag you under as well.
Indeed, Hu was at this point under attack for his collaborationist past and on his way to losing his post at the academy.  Eventually, he would be forced to leave Taiwan and would die in Japan in 1981.

However, Hu did not quite resemble the drowning man that Stephen Soong feared would drag down Eileen Chang's reputation by peddling sensationalistic revelations. His actual attack on Chang's literary standing in Taiwan was much more subtle.

After Hu was dismissed from the academy and asked to vacate his housing, a prominent author, Zhu Xining, stepped forward and arranged for Hu to stay in an apartment next to the Zhu household.

Over the next six months, Hu lectured on the Book of Changes and Book of Poetry and created an indelible impression on Zhuand his daughters, Zhu Tianwen and Zhu Tianxin, both of whom became leading literati of their generation.

The Zhu family created a periodical, the Sansan Jikan, as a vehicle for Hu to publish his writings. Young writers clustered around Hu and Sansan Jikan became the intellectual guiding light for a generation of Taiwanese authors, and a direct challenge to Eileen Chang's literary legacy and the widespread veneration she enjoyed inside Taiwan.

In post-1949 Taiwan, Chang's disengaged, apolitical stance had filled a dual need. As an alternative to the doggedly leftist attitudes of the great mainland writers such as Lu Hsun (Lu Xun), she could be claimed by the Chiang Kai-shek regime as a Chinese writer of world stature who was not hostile to the KMT. For mainland emigre readers on Taiwan, her dispassionate use of the Japanese occupation as little more than context for her fiction offered them the license to regard their regime's undemocratic occupation of Formosa as simply the background for the private, privileged dramas at the center of their lives.

By the mid-1970s, however, the KMT's loss of international legitimacy and the political and literary challenge of the burgeoning Formosan movement for self-determination could no longer be complaisantly ignored.

In the world of literature, young mainlanders bursting with intellectual and emotional energy but unwilling to engage with the moral bankruptcy of the KMT's control over Taiwan's political and cultural life busied themselves with the expression and promotion of transcendental and eternal Chinese cultural ideals.

A group of these self-consciously erudite young reactionaries rejected the West-inspired iconoclasm of the May 4th movement and the instinctive, immersive modernism of Eileen Chang. Instead, they adopted the stance of neo-literati, protecting the essence of Chinese civilization against the destructive forces of Chinese communism, alien Western culture, and Formosan provincialism.

Hu Lancheng - who himself had defiantly and energetically collaborated with a bankrupt regime because it was the only available vessel for his exalted ambitions - was a fitting godfather to the new literary movement, sometimes characterized as “Greater China Utopianism”, centered on the Sansan literary journal.

Hu Lancheng directed and validated the emergence of young Taiwan writers from Eileen Chang's shadow. He shifted the debate over Chang's legacy to the more favorable terms of Chang's naivete versus his rich life experiences - albeit, in the realms of love and politics, experiences of the most discreditable sort, but still darkly fascinating to his youthful coterie.

The group constellated around Hu considered themselves as writers in the Eileen Chang tradition - with a difference.

The new dispensation was that Chang and Hu had formed a complementary literary diad: in Chinese operatic terms Chang sang the qiang and Hu the diao. Some went further, stating that Hu had “instructed” Chang, providing crucial intellectual insights that raised Chang to greatness.

Today the Zhu sisters regard Chang as an emotionally and intellectually immature writer lacking the necessary “perspective” - an understanding of the crucial cultural and philosophical context in which great literature is embedded - that Hu bestowed on the literati of the Sansan group.

Hu's followers critiqued and deconstructed Chang's influence, ironically guaranteeing that the flood of Eileen Chang literary studies could only increase as the theses and counter-theses multiplied exponentially in the world's universities and academic and literary journals.

It would be easier to dismiss Hu as an opportunistic poseur. However, both Zhu sisters became leading literary figures in Taiwan and Hu's close and formative association with so many of Greater China's greatest writers is difficult to gainsay.

Even on the mainland, where Japanese collaborators and Taiwanese literary squabbles are given short shrift, the leading Eileen Chang scholar, Zhi An, has cautiously endorsed Hu's exceptional literary ability.

On Taiwan, there is a certain sense of awe surrounding Hu's charisma, intellect and mysterious talent-spotting mojo.

Zhu Tianwen, in particular, has displayed her adoration for Hu in the most extravagant terms in the 30 years since she first met him.

In an English-language interview promoting Hou Hsiao-jen's film Sing Song Girls of Shanghai, Zhu, who wrote the screenplay, rattled on and on about Hu Lancheng with not a word about Eileen Chang - even though the movie was based on a 19th century novel that Chang devoted the last years of her life to translating, first into Mandarin and then into English:
The Sansan jikan ... was actually only started because of Hu Lancheng. Because of his controversial political past, serving under Wang Jingwei in the Japanese-run puppet government, he was labeled a traitor to China and his writings were banned. We, on the other hand, saw something really special in both he and his works that other people didn't seem to recognize.
In many ways, the aforementioned aspiration to become more than a mere writer or literati and strive to become like a traditional Chinese scholar, or shi, all had its start with Hu Lancheng.
Hu Lancheng passed away in 1981, so all together we only knew him for seven years. He was only in Taiwan for three of those seven years and only lived next door for six months - but those six months had an immense influence on our later lives as writers ... There is a line of poetry ... that goes, ... "The hand plucks the five strings, while the eyes see off the flying geese." What it means is that although what you are doing may be a relatively small task, like playing the zither, your mind is far off, gazing at the geese soaring at the edge of the heavens ... This perspective, this vision is really perhaps the greatest gift that Hu Lancheng left us with.
(Hou, Hsiao-hsien, 1947- and Zhu, Tianwen. and Berry, Michael. "Words and Images: A Conversation with Hou Hsiao-hsien and Chu T'ien-wen." positions: east asia cultures critique 11.3 (2003): 675-716)
This context fills Eileen Chang's ambivalence about publishing Little Reunion with special pathos.

As Chang sank into a life of seclusion and disappointment in the United States, her detested ex-husband energetically and effectively nurtured an entire new generation of female writers who want not only to claim but supersede her legacy with his help.

Chang struggled to maintain control over her art and her history.

She originally wrote Little Reunion as a direct response to a letter from Zhu Tianwen's father, Zhu Xining, proposing that he write a biography of her - with the assistance of Hu Lancheng.

In Little Reunion there is a sly passage that seems to refer to Hu's overbearing efforts to appropriate her emotions and her voice:
He kissed her. A shudder shook his shoulders and she felt his forearms, so robust, through his sleeves. “He really loves me,” she thought. Then the blocky tip of his tongue suddenly jutted between her teeth, like a cork, dry from all the talking he had done. He sensed her disgust and released her with a smile.
Zhu never proceeded with his biography, so Chang apparently did not feel compelled to publish her version of events during her lifetime.

Ironically, it was only after her death, after control of her legacy fell into the hands of other artists with their own agendas, that her status as a Greater China cultural icon was assured.

Ang Lee's 2007 film version of Lust, Caution played an important role in expanding the readership for Chang's work in China, and establishing Eileen Chang as an important cultural brand - while distancing itself from the low-key observational style that is Chang's trademark.

The film did virtually no business in the United States, where its NC-17 rating excluded it from the main movie chains; however, it became a cause celebre throughout Asia, where passionate debate over its sexual explicitness, respect for the film and its source material, and the awareness of unfinished business in Chinese attitudes toward the anti-Japanese war combined to create intense interest in the film.

Lee's Lust, Caution could be characterized as The Passion of Wang Chiachih, in which Chang's doppelganger is exalted, transformed and destroyed by her illicit relationship. Wang is ennobled and excused for her warped liaison with the collaborator - the glamorous Tony Leung - in a way that it's difficult to believe Chang intended.

China, anxious to accommodate Ang Lee as an important filmmaker and burnish China's credentials as an international destination for movie projects, nevertheless insisted on putting its own spin on the movie's theme of passion over politics for the mainland release.

China's censors decided that Wang Chiachih's character could not be permitted to save her traitor-lover from the assassins. In the mainland version, Tony Leung's character intuits the conspiracy by himself and flees; Wang simply murmurs, “OK, go. [zou ba].”

Indeed, China's cultural guardians, ambivalent about providing official recognition of Chang's merits and importance, organized and then cancelled a planned conference on her work as recently as 2005.

Meanwhile, the descendants of a real-life female assassin asserted that the film was based on and traduced the true story of an attempt to kill a high official in Wang Ching-wei's government, Ding Mocun - a contention that Ang Lee has denied. The Taiwanese authorities obligingly determined that the lady in question was chaste, resolute and betrayed only by a malfunctioning revolver.

The price and glory of literary fame is apparently that readers and critics are all eager to appropriate Eileen Chang for their own purposes.

In an ironic intersection of censorship, piracy and post-modernist literary theory, a mainland critic addressed the controversy over publishing Little Reunion without Chang's explicit clearance for publication by invoking Roland Barthes to declare that once the story was written, it achieved an existence independent of Eileen Chang and her intentions.

Over the next few years, we will continue to hear Eileen Chang's unique voice, albeit filtered through our own preconceptions and expectations. Roland Soong has announced that he is preparing two more pieces for publication.

Peter Lee writes on East and South Asian affairs and their intersection with US foreign policy.

(Copyright 2009 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.) -

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Hey! What About Term Limits for the Chinese Communist Party, Xi Jinping??

In my most recent China Watch video for Newsbud, I have some fun with the ostentatious handwringing and concern trolling the West concerning the CCP proposal to abolish term limits for the presidency of the PRC.

Here’s the trailer!

The video offers my unique take on U.S. presidential term limits, one that I think is surprising and revealing.  That’s a teaser, folks.  Go to to subscribe and take a look.

In interest of time and in consideration of the general-interest audience, Newsbud edited out the inside-baseball slice of my video that discussed the real issue behind the presidency dustup: Xi Jinping’s move to affirm a succession protocol for party General Secretary that could give him three or more terms, instead of the two terms that have been customary for the last couple decades.

Here’s the script for the bit that pretty much got dropped:

Long story short, the primary significance of the proposed abolition of term limits for presidency of the PRC is that it essentially confirms that Xi Jinping is going to go for at least one additional term as general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party.

 And where it counts, inside the Chinese Communist Party, there are no term limits.  Not really.

The reported rule of thumb for membership in the Politburo Standing Committee, the apex of collective leadership in the Party and the pool from which party general secretaries are selected, was “seven up/eight down.” It meant that cadres 67 years and under could advance to the Standing Committee and have a shot at becoming general secretary; those 68 and older should retire.   This rule was supposedly instituted by party secretary Jiang Zemin in 2002.  

Actually, the rule was a rather special interpretation of the principle of generational renewal of the CCP leadership cadre ever ten years instituted by Deng Xiaoping because, to put it bluntly, Jiang Zemin wanted to screw a political rival, Li Ruihuan, who happened to be 68 years old.

Xi Jinping will turn 68 on June 15, 2021—a year before his second term as party secretary ends—so it’s understandable his people have been debunking the seven up/eight down rule to the press for some time.

Folklore, I tell you!

More to the point, perhaps, for China every CCP general secretary before Xi Jinping had been selected or prepositioned by Deng Xiaoping.  That includes Hu Jintao, Xi Jinping’s predecessor, who finished up as general secretary in 2012—fifteen years after Deng Xiaoping died.

Given the historical context of CCP succession strategies and China’s new situation in the world, I would guess that Xi Jinping has had some success in selling the idea inside the Party that he’s tweaking the system to reflect current realities, not overturning an iron-clad norm.

The flurry of leaks and criticism of the PRC presidential term limits move is, I expect, a surrogate for dismay that Xi Jinping views his tenure as General Secretary as open-ended and that his view is apparently prevailing inside the CCP.

Carping about presidential term limits in the public sphere might reflect more of a “go for broke” attitude by opponents who feel that the intra-Party debate isn’t going their way.  What the heck? If Xi is going to lock in the job Party Secretary for the next decade, there’s nothing to be gained by staying silent and little lost by speaking up now.

So anti-Xi Jinping voices are now more willing to blab and turn Western journos largely shut out of news about CCP internal matters into instant experts on the precariousness of Xi’s rule.

If the domestic and international hubbub forces Xi to climb down on term limits revision, he will have certainly suffered a major setback.

But I think the odds are against it.

For what it’s worth, I regard critics of Xi Jinping’s ambitions for prolonging his stint as Party Secretary fall into a few categories:

People inside and outside the party who don’t like Xi’s plan to manage the PRC through an increasingly activist, pro-active, and intrusive CCP;

People inside the party who prefer the collectivist leadership model (and the ability of cadres to make political and financial hay by leveraging their loyalties without worrying overmuch about threats to their political power and economic interests) to a powerful, if not Mao-like General Secretary;

People who have no big problem with big-leader rule but prefer it wouldn’t be implemented by Xi Jinping.  I guess there are some dead enders who hope that Bo Xilai will get sprung from prison and lead the CCP to glory, but don’t know if there’s anybody else out there.

My thesis is that Xi Jinping’s case for a powerful CCP bossman unhampered by term limits may be self-serving but it also has enough merit for the party as a whole to acquiesce.
There’s a miasma of crisis, corruption, and drift surrounding the PRC and the CCP, and Xi Jinping’s long war to renovate the CCP as an instrument of effective technocratic rule in an era of significant national challenge might be seen to deserve another decade to succeed (or fail so utterly that the approach will be discredited).