Thursday, November 29, 2012

It’s Not Freedom vs. Truth; It’s Daniel Bell vs. Mark MacKinnon (and David Bandurski)

In an interesting piece of synchronicity, just as the Lei Zhengfu sex tape case turned the microscope on the political minefields that Chinese reporters tiptoe through every day, the careful and circumspect work habits of PRC journalists were also invoked by Tsinghua University professor Daniel Bell in his response to a none-too-favorable profile of him by Mark MacKinnon in the Globe and Mail.

Dr. Bell is a favored intellectual for the PRC regime because he regards democracy as a relative rather than absolute good and thinks China is doing better with a mixed system of single-party rule at the top and some democratic rumblings down below.  Dr. Bell’s views go beyond the Burkean advocacy of social stability through elite rule (a strain recapitulated throughout the modern history of the West) to the rather questionable assumption that the PRC government is a high-functioning meritocracy, at least at the national level.

Dr. Bell is clearly not a favorite of Mr. MacKinnon, who did a reasonably workmanlike job of depicting him as a clueless ass.

Bell clearly felt there should have been some more back-and-forth on the profile, perhaps with an opportunity for rebuttal, instead of MacKinnon interviewing him and then going off to juxtapose Bell’s musings with some excoriating commentary from the neo-liberal quadrant characterizing him as a regime apologist or worse.

In a reply on Huffington Post, Bell contrasted his handling at the hands of Mr. MacKinnon with the apparently kid-glove treatment he receives from PRC state media:

[T]here are some advantages to the Chinese way of reporting news. When Chinese journalists interview their subjects, they try to put forward a balanced account of what the interviewees have to say, with emphasis on what can be learned and communicated as something new and interesting. They rarely engage in muckraking, public character assassination, or put on a smiling face then betray their interviewees in print.

This rather Pollyannish take on Chinese journalism—Dr. Bell is seemingly oblivious to the intense and continual pressure to conform to or anticipate the news-management demands of editors, state, party, and/or any bigshot with enough juice to pick up the phone or order a reporter beat up—is not a persuasive rebuttal to a snide hatchet job by an unsympathetic reporter.

Unfortunately for Mr. MacKinnon, in the crude parlance of the day, he fucked up.

Per Dr. Bell:

To be honest, I can live with all these mistakes and misleading innuendos. It won't be the first time interviewees have been victimized by muckraking journalists. What really hurts me, however, is that MacKinnon chose to implicate my wife (he has not met her). Before the article was published, I had forwarded an email from my wife asking that her name be left out of the article, but he chose to ignore that email.

MacKinnon writes that "Prof. Bell's well-kept house as well as his background suggest his family is of the class he thinks should rule China." The implication is that I defend rule by the rich because it's in my class interest to do so. In fact, I do not think that rich people should rule China. An important advantage of a well-functioning political meritocracy is that it allows for upward (and downward) mobility based on ability and morality, not class background.

But to press his vulgar Marxist argument, MacKinnon writes: "He met his wife, Song Bing, at Oxford University in 1989, a time when only top students with impeccable Communist credentials were allowed to leave China to study." In fact, my wife is not a party member, and she left China in 1988 because she was awarded a merit-based scholarship by the Hong Kong based Swire Corporation. At the time, my wife was an undergraduate at Peking University's law faculy, and she was admitted to that university as a result of having scored highly on the national university examinations in her home province of Hunan. Perhaps MacKinnon was led to think that "impeccable Communist credentials" played a role in helping my wife go abroad because my wife's 86 year old father was a local level communist cadre. Such "guilt by family association" was typical in the Cultural Revolution and maybe MacKinnon chose to borrow tactics from those days. In fact, the connection exists only in MacKinnon's mind. Again, he could have checked this information, but he chose not to.


The Globe and Mail corrected the article:

“There is a morally legitimate model of political rule that has more or less guided political reform over the last two or three decades,” Prof. Bell said in an interview at his tidy home in Shunyi, an upper-class suburb of the capital where he lives with his Chinese wife, a senior executive at Goldman Sachs China, whose father fought for the winning side in the Communist Revolution, and their teenage son.

Set across the street from Beijing’s elite Dulwich College, Prof. Bell’s well-kept house as well as his background suggest his family is of the class he thinks should rule China. He met his wife, Song Bing, at Oxford University in 1988. She was there on a merit-based scholarship from the Hong Kong-based Swire Corporation. The couple lived in Singapore and Hong Kong before Prof. Bell was hired at Tsinghua in 2004, the first foreign philosophy professor to join the university since the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949.

I particularly enjoy the grudging flavor of “whose father fought for the winning side in the Communist Revolution” and the retention of the rather eye-popping editorializing of “Prof. Bell’s well kept house as well as his background suggest his family is of the class he thinks should rule China.”

Apparently somebody—and/or his editor—could not stomach the idea of a thoroughgoing upgrade of these dismal paragraphs, because identifying Song Bing’s father as simply a local cadre or, for that matter, dropping the reference altogether, would have undercut the implication that anti-meritocratic party favoritism explained Mdme. Song’s impressive resume and Dr. Bell’s China-ruling taste in real estate. 

 In fact—gulp—the fact that she won a merit scholarship to Oxford and then went on to become a heavyweight at Goldman Sachs might imply that Professor Bell has evidence of meritocracy in his own home!

What the heck.   People make mistakes and don’t like to admit them.  I’m the same way.  

Mr. MacKinnon’s voluminous Twitter feed understandably does not include a shout-out along the lines of “Check it out!  I had to retract some sloppy reporting!#Sorry Song Bing!”

Instead, he primly links to a vociferous attack on Bell’s Huffington Post article by David Bandurski of the Hong Kong Media Project.  It slides past the central issue in Bell’s piece—the dubious and undocumented innuendo concerning Mdme. Song’s bona fides—and tries to shift the attention to discrediting Bell for his wide-eyed protestations about the Chinese media.  It is a hurried (hey, Mr. Bandurski, the title of Bell’s piece isn’t “Freedom or Truth”, it’s “Freedom Over Truth”; it’s right there in the screen shot you grabbed from the Huffington Post) and not, to my jaundiced eye, a particularly effective piece of Fisking.

Bandurski really gets lost in the woods by sneering that Bell can’t even recognize the non-meritocratic nature of education at his own university, Tsinghua:

In any case, it was the reading suggested by the headline [about academic freedom] that caught the attention of many Chinese academics at the time, prompting a bit of chatter and no doubt some eye rolling as well. China had just had a number of rather high-profile incidents underscoring problems in Chinese higher education. They all boiled down to a system that was not, cringe, merit-based. 

In 2005 world-renowned artist Chen Danqing had resigned from Tsinghua in disgust over the unnecessarily rigid (not rigorous, mind you) screening system for student recruitment and academic qualification. Chen saw the system as antagonistic to talent. Right on the heels of Chen Danqing’s resignation from Tsinghua, prominent Peking University legal scholar He Weifang penned an open letter announcing that he would refuse to accept master’s degree students for the 2006 academic year. Why? Because the admissions process was fundamentally flawed, he said, and many of the brightest students were not being admitted because of needless and fussy requirements.

Needless, fussy, rigid?  Maybe.  Relying on punishing entrance exams that weed out people who don’t test well but could succeed and excel?  For sure.

But people who get into Tsinghua are smart.  Full stop.  Quite possibly, the reason for Prof. Bell’s idiosyncratic views on the meritocratic character of Chinese institutions is because he is in the privileged position of working with the best and brightest at one of the most meritocratic outfits in China.

In Mr. Bandurski’s effort to take down Bell, he reprints a China Youth Daily profile of Bell, one that Bell undoubtedly found infinitely more pleasing than MacKinnon’s (sample: Some students compliment him on his handsome looks, and unlike Westerners he doesn’t shrug nonchalantly and say, “Thank you.” He casts his eyes down, lowers his head and says, “Oh, it’s nothing” (哪里,哪里).

It provides some interesting information on Bell’s time in Singapore, which perhaps molded his optimistic outlook on single-party elitist/meritocratic governance, as well as an acceptance of political oversight:

“When I was teaching at the National University of Singapore, the department head there was a member of the ruling People’s Action Party. After he was replaced, the new department head wanted to see my list of readings, and he said I should speak more about communitarianism and less about John Stuart Mill (a representative figure of liberalism – reporter’s note). When I spoke about politically sensitive material such as Marxist ideas, a number of special people would appear in the classroom. When I used [Singapore’s] domestic politics to make my points, the students would keep quiet. For that reason, when my contract wasn’t renewed after it terminated there was nothing strange about it.”

It’s an awful thing to say, I guess, but you get a more useful perspective on Bell and his ideas from the China Youth Daily puff piece than you do from MacKinnon’s profile.  Wonder what that means.

Lei Zhengfu Sex Tape Correction: The Wrong Girl!

The incomparable Roland Soong of EastSouthWestNorth turned his critical eye on the webstorm surrounding the Lei Zhengfu sex tape and posted a notice that the girl depicted in the various pictorial pastiches being circulated (such as the “Lei Zhengfu as Jabba the Hutt” japery I posted on a couple days back) is not the girl in the tape.  She’s a student in Xiamen who has nothing to do with the shenanigans in Chongqing and is understandably miffed at the underserved notoriety she has achieved, apparently at the hands of some blogger in China who chose random pictures of a pretty girl to bookend with Lei’s sluglike visage.

My sincerest apologies.  Here is a link to Roland’s piece.

ESWN also translated and posted the translation of a web posting by a journalist, “Mr. Gui Xi”,  who had first look at the video but  got scooped by Ji Xiguang, allegedly a hyper-aggressive and morally flexible freelancer who ran with the story, spiked it in the endzone, and acquired 300,000 followers on his microblog account while Mr. Gui Xi was left on the sidelines to contemplate the meager rewards of ethical journalism.

A few points of interest here.

Mr. Gui Xi provides no further insight on how the “People’s Supervisory Network”—apparently some kind of whistleblower site—got the tape from somebody inside the Chongqing police apparatus.

But he does paint an interesting picture of how this particular PRC journalist deals with dicy stories that involve government officials.  It involves a careful probing for corroboration, cautious discussions with the editor, and anxious approaches to the local authorities:

In the afternoon of November 20, I began interviewing for confirmation.  I called up Lei Zhengfu.  He said "No such thing" and denied it.  I called up the Chongqing City Communist Party Disciplinary Committee, and they said that they were not aware of any sex videos.  But they have an Internet monitoring department, and if they come across such information, they would initiate an investigation.  They also asked me to provide them with the contact information for the People's Supervisory Network.

That evening, I wrote the report .  But my bosses felt that the case cannot be so simple and that there must be some ulterior motive for leaking the video, so the story was suppressed for a day until more information is obtained the next day.  In retrospect, there was a story behind and the decision not to publish on the first day was correct.
As mentioned before, I had provided the Chongqing City Communist Party Disciplinary Committee with the contact information of the People's Supervisory Network on November 20.  The next day, November 21, I contacted them again.  They said that their Internet monitoring department had seen the Internet post on the evening of November 20, and their leaders have immediately initiated the process to investigate.

I remembered that as soon as I identified myself, the worker on the other side immediately said: "After you spoke to me yesterday, I immediately informed the operations department.  When they saw the Internet post, they immediately informed the leaders.  The leaders took it seriously and immediately initiated the investigation."
Zhu Ruifeng [the source at People’s Supervisory Network] thought that based upon his past experience, it would take at most one week to bring Lei Zhengfu down by releasing the indecent video.

He said that he sought out a reporter to share the material on November 20 out of timing considerations.  The Eighteenth Chinese Communist Party Congress was just over, so there are fewer restraints on public opinion.  On the morning of November 20, Sun Zhengcai was just named as the Chongqing City Communist Party Secretary.  "New officials need accomplishments on the job!"  Once the indecent video gets shown, the principal will become a target.
In retrospect, the Chongqing City Communist Party Disciplinary Party acted even faster than expected, and Lei Zhengfu was dismissed within three days.

Clearly, it's open season on Lei and the new municipal bosses are using his saucy antics to draw a bright line between the bad old days of Bo Xilai and the new, squeaky-clean regime in Chongqing.

Global Times interviewed Zhu Ruifeng, who reiterated that he didn’t want to get involved in any pre-party congress boat-rocking.  But his source, identified as an officer inside the Chongqing public security apparatus, told him:

“The very reason I want to get this in the papers is because of the 18th Party Congress.  It’s possible that all the secretaries of the [Party] discipline committees will be changed and new leadership groups set up.  I have to take down a corrupt official.”

Zhu says his source’s motives are unknown.  Maybe he wanted to ingratiate himself with the new bosses (or become one himself).

According to Zhu, he got the e-mail with the video on November 4 and called up Liu Zhengfu the next day:

“Lei had headed the propaganda bureau in Changshou County and understood the interview process.  He told me, if you want an interview, first send me the materials.” 

After receiving the materials, Lei denounced them as forgeries and stonewalled Zhu.  Zhu (and apparently Ji Xuguang and “Mr. Gui Xi”) subsequently received a call from the owner of a Karaoke TV bar in Beijing who identified himself as Lei’s cousin and, we can presume, tried to manage the problem with some combination of threats and inducements.

While reaching out to Zhu through intermediaries, Lei also set up a special team to try to figure out who leaked the video, without success (must have been an interesting kickoff meeting: “Hey, you know that video of me having sex with that 18 year old girl?...).  

The interesting and complicating element in the story that Wang Lijun, the-disgraced-top-cop-under-disgraced-Chongqing-mayor Bo Xilai had already received the video and investigated Lei a couple years ago; the businessman and the girl were jailed and have already served their time and been released.  According to the article, Lei had approached the municipal leadership and apologized for his error.  

One can assume, therefore, that Lei had already been on the receiving end of whatever censure, discipline, or amused sniggering the party deemed appropriate, the tape was evidence in a closed case whose release was embarrassing and unnecessary, and in 2012 Lei was at liberty to pursue an investigation of whoever had committed the punishable infraction of leaking the infamous video.
However, events overcame him.

On November 20, a citywide cadre meeting was held to effect the personnel changes mandated for Chongqing by the Party center and fine words were spoken by the municipal party secretary concerning integrity in public service.  Zhu characterized this policy statement as a “great gift” that took a load off his mind, and he began approaching media outlets with the tape and the story.  Within 63 or 71 hours, depending on how you count it (and the Chinese blogosphere keeps close track of how long it takes to collect an official scalp), the municipal government’s news office announced that Lei was under investigation.

The rather ironic thing is that Lei was already investigated during the Wang Lijun era and, subsequent to the investigation, had been promoted to the rather important position of municipal district party secretary.  It isn’t clear that the construction company that arranged the woman (and the special spycam in a handbag) successfully bribed or blackmailed Lei.  So far, at least, his crime consists of getting caught on tape horndogging while looking ridiculous (Global Times provided the interesting but seemingly gratuitous testimony that, of the 80 minutes of video, only 36 seconds showed Lei having sex).

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

US pivot bumps Asian economic reality

[This post originally appeared at Asia Times Online on Nov. 22, 2012.  It can be reposted if ATOl is credited and a link provided.]

President Barack Obama's first post - election mission is a trip to Southeast Asia - Myanmar, Thailand, and Cambodia - to affirm his signature diplomatic and strategic initiative, the pivot to Asia.

Despite concerted hosannas in the Western press, President Obama's trip was overshadowed - perhaps intentionally - by Israel pitching Gaza back into the meat grinder and drawing attention back to the Middle East, a region that the Obama administration is nakedly and desperately eager to abandon.

In Asia, Obama will find a different set of problems, ones that have a lot to do with the United States attempts to assert a leading role in the region by leveraging its military presence - despite the fact
that the region is remarkably peaceful, especially compared to that previous beneficiary of heightened US military attention, the Middle East - and arguing for the centrality of its role as regional economic hegemon - despite the fact the only contribution that the United States has made to the Asian economy in the last five years was a negative one, as it drove the global financial system off a cliff in 2007 - 2008.

Objectively, US claims of "global leadership," particularly in Asia, have a peculiar taste:

Population of Asia: 4.16 billion
Population of the United States: 311 million
Asian tradition of great urban civilizations: 2,500 years
US tradition of great urban civilization: 150 years
US share of GDP, 2011: 25.9%, expected to hold steady or increase somewhat by 2050
Asian share of GDP, 2011: 26.9%, projected to exceed 50% by 2050

On the quantitative side, there are still 711 billion reasons for Asia to pay attention to the United States:

US defense budget: $711 billion
Combined defense budgets of China, India, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan: $224 billion. [1]

However, even this dominant military position will erode as the world's developing economies channel some of their wealth into control over their own security destinies; one estimate predicts the US share of global defense spending will drop from 41% to 30% over the next few years. [2]

As its share of the global economy shrinks, the United States is relying more on qualitative claims of its moral stature as practitioner and promoter of democracy, open markets, and free speech - rather than quantitative claims that it holds the balance of economic and military power in its hands.

But the United States is not in refocusing on Asia for the moral satisfaction of promoting democracy, or even the intangible psychic benefits of protecting its brown and yellow brothers in Asia from themselves with its benevolent military might. As shown by the bloody path of human catastrophe that the United States has created and enabled in the Middle East, the United States' foreign relations are not driven by a compulsion to impose democracy or open economies.

The Asian game - the expenditure of military, moral, and diplomatic capital - is worth the candle to the United States because of the increasing importance of Asia to world trade.

Or, to put it in less American - centric terms, the center of world trade is shifting to Asia and away from the "Atlantic Powers", ie Europe and the United States.

Even today, the United States, thanks to its immense and structural fiscal deficits, is no longer able leverage its GDP advantage to act as the world's demand engine and call the economic shots in Asia. Instead, the United States wants to weaken its currency and increase exports to Asia, challenging the export - driven model that has driven the rise of Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and China.

Unsurprisingly, given these liabilities, it is time for America to whip out the secret sauce of freedom promotion in order to claim a unique moral authority to set the Asian agenda. And to create a compelling freedom narrative, a compelling anti - freedom bogeyman is required.

In other words, enter China.

The dirty secret of the US pivot to Asia is that it requires tension, polarization, and a zero sum antagonist. In other words, it needs China to justify a destabilizing US presence in the region.

I believe it is an accurate characterization of the aims of the Chinese leadership that it would happily live the next 30 years of its existence as it lived the past 30 years: amorally free-riding on debt-fueled US demand and the US security regime in East Asia, until the US consumes itself in a fiscal bonfire and leaves China as the last East Asian power standing, without a single shot fired in anger.

Now, for national and domestic reasons, the United States is trying to change the rules of the game.

It is a credit to the tunnel vision of Western pundits that the destabilizing consequences of a major, publicly announced, US strategic reemphasis on Asia - the famous "pivot" - is ignored in favor of a narrative that paints China's continued focus on business as usual - success in economic growth - as the "China rising" threat to Asian stability.

One can either believe that the United States is selflessly injecting itself into the South China Sea disputes in order to protect the right of smaller Asian nations to argue with the PRC over worthless rocks and protect "freedom of navigation and commerce" (even though the vast majority of traffic through the South China Sea is going to and from PRC ports)... or one might perceive a concerted US effort to wrench the Asian economic focus away from the PRC and toward the United States by polarizing Asia into pro-US vs pro-China camps.

If you voted for the economic argument, well, the Obama administration agrees with you.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Does China Bashing Make People Stupid? Lei Zhengfu/Associated Press Edition

[Update: the girl shown in the photo is merely a random image; Chinese media reported she is a university student in Xiamen and she has nothing to do with Lei Zhengfu.  My apologies.  Further details on the Lei case here.]

Alexa Olesen of Associated Press wrote a piece on the Lei Zhengfu sex tape.  Fine article.

I’m assuming she’s not responsible for the title: Sex tape used to bribe Chinese official goes viral.

A more accurate title should be: Sex tape used to blackmail Chinese official goes viral.

I guess the genius at AP who tacks the titles on these things decided that “Chinese official as victim of blackmail scheme” did not adequately reinforce the “Chinese officials are corrupt” meme and decided to come up with something that fits better with the current zeitgeist.

He could have gone with “Sex bribery of Chinese official turns out to be sex tape blackmail” but that doesn’t scan too well.

How about “Tatooine Council Cans Jabba the Hut Over Princess Leia Sex Tape”?  

It is a source of great puzzlement and distress to me that the interwebs have not yet generated a photoshopped depiction of this striking image.  I’m a busy man, so this is the best I could find:

Actually, a headline that conveys the true context of the episode would be “PRC Leadership Piggybacks Anti-Corruption Drive on Top of Chongqing/Bo Xilai Purge”.


The Lei Zhengfu sex tape is actually a significant story, primarily because the government let the expose happen.  

In the coming weeks, I think “correcting abuses in Chongqing” will be used as a convenient jumping off point for a variety of central government reform initiatives that are actually intended to be national in scope.  Instead of challenging the strongest, most entrenched governmental/party/SOE interests at the center or in the provinces, the CCP leadership will be going after the weakest, most discredited elements of the decimated Chongqing power structure first.  

Perhaps the example of Lei Zhengfu’s public humiliation and the demonstration of the power of China’s web and media to drive the national discourse is meant to show the economic and political powers that be that Xi Jinping & Co. possess an effective tool to overcome institutional resistance to the expansion of their rule and policies both in the center and at the provincial/municipal level. 

It’s an interesting story.  Wonder who’ll cover it.  And who will write the headlines?

Lei/Jabba image from

Monday, November 19, 2012

World braces for Syrian trainwreck

[This piece originally appeared at Asia Times Online on November 17, 2012.  It can be reposted if ATOl is credited and a link provided.]

According to Russia's TASS news agency, a grim milestone was achieved in Syria a few days ago: several peaceful demonstrators in Aleppo were massacred. [1] The twist is that the demonstrators were calling for protection by the Syrian army to end the destruction of the city; they were shot by insurgents.

A single, thinly sourced news item is not needed to demonstrate the profound moral and strategic disarray afflicting the Syrian insurrection as the country totters toward collapse. A handier and more reliable reference point is the abrupt and forcible reorganization of the overseas Syrian opposition at the behest of the United States.

The Syrian National Council (SNC) is now just a junior partner in a broader opposition grouping, the "Syrian National Coalition for Opposition and Revolutionary Forces" (SNCORF). Reportedly, this new group was formed at the insistence of US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. She is retiring in a few weeks and apparently wished to pull the plug on the ineffectual SNC and replace it with something less overtly Sunni/Muslim Brotherhood-esque. The SNC's major sponsor, Qatar, and the great minds at the Doha branch of the Brookings Institute responded with the marvel that is SNCORF.

SNCORF is striving for rainbow-coalition inclusiveness. The big tent includes secularists, Christians, Alawites, and women - and also 22 SNC/Muslim Brotherhood holdovers - but, for the time being, no Kurds. Also, none of the Western reporting indicated that representatives of the most inclusive and legitimate in-country opposition, the National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change, led by Hassan Abdul Azim, attended the meeting.

In an attempt to have its communal cake and eat it too, SNCORF announced that this inclusive grouping would be headed by a Sunni cleric, an ex-imam of the Umayyad Mosque, one Ahmed Moaz al-Khatib, who appeared in a suit and tie to advertise, if not his secularism, his secular-friendly taste in attire.

A throwback in a suit
Judging from the comments of Asad Abu Khalil , the acerbic "Angry Arab" observer of Middle East shenanigans, the motto for SNCORF and America's Syria policy may well turn out to be "Reorganize in Haste ... Repent at Leisure".

Abu Khalil reported on several interesting items he gleaned from al-Khatib's web postings:
I spent last night reading the writings of ... Ahmad Ma'adh Al-Khatib: a clear follower of the Muslim Brotherhood and a disciple of Yusuf Al-Qaradawi [an important theological mentor to Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood]. He has many views that his Western sponsors did not know about. Take his treatise on masturbation here: he maintains that this "sinister habit" causes tuberculosis and tears down the flesh.

Here, Mr Ahmad Ma'adh Al-Khatib calls for Jihad to rescue the ummah [the posting referred to now appears to be inaccessible]. Enjoy him, please, especially those in Western governments which approved him and promoted him without reading a word of his writings.

I am sure that the US Zionists who approved the appointment of Mr Al-Khatib as head of the exile Syrian opposition did not know that he referred to Zionism as a "cancerous racist movement."

Mr Ma'adh Al-Khatib says here [see above note on access to the posting] that Saddam has virtues among them: "that he terrified the Jews".

This kook (who could not have been appointed to the position of preacher in the Mosque of the Umayyads in Damascus without the approval of the Syrian regime intelligence apparatus) here declares that Facebook is a US-Israeli intelligence plot. Read to believe. [2]
Good luck, Secretary Clinton, with that Syrian opposition re-boot.

There was, perhaps, a more significant element to this reorganization that was largely overlooked - the relative absence of Saudi Arabia at SNCORF's coming-out party. The meeting in Doha was orchestrated by the United States, Turkey, and Qatar. Qatar's prime minister keynoted the opening session and "presided" over the expanded meeting of the Syrian opposition. [3]

Apparently, no Saudi Arabian heavyweight attended. That is significant because the reorganization of the Syrian overseas opposition was a reaction against the inadequacies of the Qatar-backed SNC, but also a response to the crisis caused by the mushrooming influence of Saudi-funded jihadis inside Syria.

Foreign efforts to support the insurrection had largely turned into directionless dithering, thanks in large part to Western unwillingness to validate and empower the expatriate and Muslim Brotherhood-dominated SNC with significant amounts of arms. Saudi Arabian Salafists displayed no such qualms about dispatching arms and jihadis to Syria, with the result that extremists have filled the revolutionary vacuum.

News coverage of the uprising now often includes reporting on gruesome atrocities perpetrated by insurgents, the occasional raising of the al-Qaeda flag, and the profound weariness and disgust Syrian citizens are expressing against the insurrectionists as well as the government. With blowback into Lebanon and Turkey, and Israel now firing on Syrian armor, the situation is generally acknowledged to be getting out of hand - and the SNC, never much more than a stalking horse for the Muslim Brotherhood and a convenient propaganda front for the foreign powers seeking to unseat Bashar al-Assad, is definitely not the group needed to bring order out of the chaos.

SNCORF, with its Muslim Brotherhood component sufficiently diluted (or, if you prefer, with its internal politics now satisfactorily factionalized so that the US and Europe can expect to exert a controlling influence on its policies and actions), is being positioned as a suitable and properly vetted vehicle for formal recognition of the Syrian opposition as a government-in-exile and conduit for foreign military aid.

SNCORF might best be regarded not so much as an attempt to level the playing field with al-Assad as an initiative to level the playing field with the Salafist jihadis who have been filling the power vacuum created by the civil war in Syria.

Can the reach of the Salafist jihadis on the battlefield be rolled back so Syria can enter the liberal democratic nirvana promised by the West? The Syrian toothpaste is pretty much out of the tube, Syria appears headed for national collapse, and it is open to question whether SNCORF, even with the superpowers bestowed upon it by its inclusiveness, democratic aspirations, loving coverage in the Guardian, and Western and Gulf Cooperation Council diplomatic and military support, can bring peace and unity back to the torn and bloody nation.

Death squads missing from action
SNCORF has its work cut out for it, and it's worth wondering if Syria's emigres and dissidents - characterized as "reliable technocrats", not "insurrectionists with fists of iron" - can tear the leading role on the Syrian battlefield away from the jihadis and the local bandits, bullies, and heroes who make up the Free Syrian Army and the multitudes of local anti-government militias.

There is one remedy for Islamic extremist insurgencies that is perceived as extremely effective by its US practitioners but is unfortunately out of reach of SNCORF, at least for the time being: death squads. Syria is now at a point similar to that of Iraq in 2006 - a Sunni insurrection has fought the central authority to a standstill, but at the cost of Salafist extremists hijacking local power.

In Iraq, the Sunni opposition to the US occupation eventually fractured as Sunni tribal leaders, threatened by the bloody-minded ambition of their jihadi allies and incentivized by US money, arms and protection, set aside their anti-American, anti-Shi'ite, and anti-Iran sentiments, at least for the time being, turned on the jihadis and cleansed Iraq's Sunni heartland - Anbar Province - of al-Qaeda militants.

The BBC provides some context of this event, the "Anbar Awakening", describing a situation that looks a lot like today's Syria:
But by 2006, in one of the many unintended consequences of the invasion, foreign fighters such as the Jordanian Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who had pledged themselves to al-Qaeda and received funding directly from Osama Bin Laden, had come to dominate the insurgency. Their control extended over vast swathes of Iraq.

Their ruthless exercise of power threatened to rip the country apart. ...

For Sheikh Jabbar, desperate times required desperate measures and this was the moment he triggered what would become the Awakening, a military counter-offensive in which he and his supporters joined forces with their former enemies, the Americans, to confront al-Qaeda.

Sheikh Jabbar sought help from the Americans to break al-Qaeda's hold on Anbar province. In late 2006, he arranged a meeting with Colonel John Tien of the US Army in which he asked for weapons and ammunition for his men to take on al-Qaeda. The Awakening had begun, marking a key turning point in the fortunes of Iraq. Although at the time they numbered in the dozens, the forces who would later be known as the Sons of Iraq swelled to a 100,000 or so. [4]
The leaders of the Sunni Awakening in Anbar Province were the leading figures of their communities, tribal big shots with extensive local familial and patronage relationships. They were also working hand in hand with the US military occupation, a rather capable killing machine. This tag-team arrangement helped make the Iraq al-Qaeda hunt a success.

In a study of the Awakening published in the Washington Quarterly, John McCrary quoted the son of one of the Anbar sheiks:
The Coalition Forces has the very strong military ability. The civilians and the tribes, they have a difference that the Coalition Forces doesn't have. It's that they're local - they found and know who comes from outside. They know who are the insurgents and who are al-Qaeda in general, such that there is no more al-Qaeda or anything else. You wouldn't believe me. I'm not exaggerating that in two months, in two months everything was finished. [5]
 Anbar Province, which resisted US pacification for four years, became one of Iraq's safer places after a few months of "Awakening". The US component of this effort was JSOC, the no-holds barred assassination initiative. JSOC was described by Bob Woodward while promoting his Iraq War book, The War Within:
Beginning in the late spring of 2007, the US military and intelligence agencies launched a series of top-secret operations that enabled them to locate, target and kill key individuals in groups such as al-Qaeda in Iraq, the Sunni insurgency and renegade Shia militias, or so-called special groups. The operations incorporated some of the most highly classified techniques and information in the US government.

Senior military officers and officials at the White House urged against publishing details or code names associated with the groundbreaking programs, arguing that publication of the names alone might harm the operations that have been so beneficial in Iraq. As a result, specific operational details have been omitted in this report and in The War Within.

But a number of authoritative sources say the covert activities had a far-reaching effect on the violence and were very possibly the biggest factor in reducing it. Several said that 85 to 90% of the successful operations and "actionable intelligence" had come from the new sources, methods and operations. Several others said that figure was exaggerated but acknowledged their significance.

Lt Gen Stanley McChrystal, the commander of the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) responsible for hunting al-Qaeda in Iraq, employed what he called "collaborative warfare," using every tool available simultaneously, from signal intercepts to human intelligence and other methods, that allowed lightning-quick and sometimes concurrent operations.

Asked in an interview about the intelligence breakthroughs in Iraq, President [George W] Bush offered a simple answer: "JSOC is awesome." [6]
Looking at Syria through the lens of what happened next door in Iraq, it would appear that the best way to bring order to the country would be for a transition that would reach beyond intransigent but incapable anti-government emigres to ally in-country moderate Sunni elements with the dominant local military force - in this case, the Syrian Army - and kick off the national reconciliation exercise by a purge of Salafists.

It appears that there were glimmerings of a "negotiated transition", aka deal cutting, with the Assad regime in the early stages of the SNCORF process but unsurprisingly the maximalist "Assad must go/no negotiations" approach prevailed. This is regrettable - at least to people who would like to see a negotiated end to the inconclusive butchery - but understandable.

Flip-flops have their limits
The US and the West are heavily vested in the "Assad must go" position. Presumably, the US could only flip-flop in response to a unanimous declaration in favor of negotiations by the Syrian opposition, but this was not to be:
Some of the last holdouts said they suspected that the agreement was a sly way for the international community to negotiate with Mr Assad about a transition to a new government. So one clause in the agreement specifically bars such talks. [7]
One might speculate that the "last holdouts" for the maximalist charter are not only motivated by overwhelming moral scruples and/or irrational rage against ending Syria's carnage by dialogue with Assad; they are also opposing an attempt to marginalize and subsequently purge extremist Islamists from the redefined movement.

Amidst all this, there was the usual tired effort to shame Russia and the People's Republic of China into solving the West's self-created Syria problem by pressuring Assad.

The PRC's four-point proposal for supporting the UN peace process was, not for the first time, shoe-horned into a West-gratifying narrative of China trying to repair damage to its global reputation caused by Beijing's obstruction on Syria at the UN Security Council. [8]

There are a couple big flaws in this tale of Western neo-liberalism tutelage of the morally obtuse PRC. First, since July 2012 the United States has been exploring the "Yemen solution", ie Assad hands over power to a carefully chosen group of supporters and opponents who perpetuate the status quo albeit in a modified, more democracy-friendly form. Does anybody remember Manaf Tlass, the Syrian military princeling/defector unsuccessfully touted as the great uniter of the loyal and insurrectionist opposition this summer? Maybe not. [9]

US equivocation on its own stance - and drift toward the Chinese position - not only from four months ago but also in the days of haggling leading up to the formation of the SNCORF is not an example or incentive for a Chinese flip-flop on Syria.

Also, as patient and retentive readers of Asia Times Online will also recall, the PRC has been pushing its Syria initiative since early 2012, with the sound, if as yet unrewarded, calculation that its most persuasive Middle Eastern role is as the alternative to democratic chaos for authoritarian governments - aka Saudi Arabia - and managed democracies - aka Iran - in the neighborhood: in other words, leveraging its role as the world's biggest customer for Saudi and Iranian oil to act as the guarantor of economic development and supporter of political stability in the region. [10]

This is a relatively sound geopolitical strategy, especially since the United States is successfully weaning itself off Middle Eastern oil - and the need to share fully and deeply in Saudi Arabia's local security anxieties - thanks to domestic fracking and a coming boom in oil sand crude imports from Canada.

Judging from the journalistic tea leaves, there is no sign that China is abandoning its Middle Way strategy in order to act as the West's clueless trained ape, mindlessly endorsing the merits of externally promoted regime change to its own detriment, a role that that foreign observers for some reason believe Beijing will happily fill in order to gain the approval of the US and European Union.

Unsurprisingly, Xinhua's analysis sniffed that SNCFOR was "dubious", commented unfavorably on its rejection of "dialogue", and also reported on some pushback in-country members of the Syrian opposition who, Xinhua implies, are more qualified to discuss Syria's fate that the emigres in Doha:
Luai Hussain, head of the opposition Building Syria State party, said his party rejects everything that comes out of the overseas-based opposition.

"We reject the formation of any transitional government abroad and any other decision ... and we regard such act as direct and real aggression on Syrians' right to choose their leadership and determine their destinies."

He said his party will mobilize Syrian public opinion to thwart efforts to form a government abroad. "The formation of any interim government abroad would be conducive to increasing division in the Syrian society, and thus would widen the platform of a civil war," he added.

Along with other leading opponents, Hussain did not take part in the Doha meeting apparently because he was not invited. [11]
Xinhua interviewed Luai (who spent seven years in Syrian prison) in Damascus; while Western outlets confide themselves largely to war reporting, war tourism, atrocity journalism, and deriding the Assad government, Xinhua has stepped up its in-country presence in an attempt to promote the visibility and credibility of the PRC's proposed political solution.

Luai advocated "international consensus" to solve the crisis; in Syria-speak, this is the Chinese position of foreign powers ceasing aid to the rebels and switching the international focus from regime change to compelling dissidents to enter the political dialogue track preferred by Russia and China.

If, as appears likely, Saudi Arabia is chafing at the snub administered by Qatar and the United States, the PRC has a chance to present itself as the Kingdom's understanding buddy and redirect King Abdullah's vision toward economics and his country's future as China's energy partner. Perhaps Saudi Arabia will decide its anti-Shi'ite/anti-Iranian crusade has yielded most of the benefits that can be expected, and it is time to ring down the curtain on the extremist-Sunni escapade inside Syria.

However, the idea of imploding Assad's regime is probably irresistible to Riyadh, and in any case the window for happy-talk political solutions is rapidly closing.

Assad's government has lost control of a lot of territory. Judging by its increasing reliance on air power, the government has determined that the battered Sunni conscripts of the regular army and the dubious shabiha paramilitaries are not up to the job of fighting street to street and house to house to get territory back, and the regime is mainly interested in denying key assets and strongpoints to the insurgency by use of jet bombers and attack helicopters. That's not a good augury for the city of Damascus if and when the mayhem moves to the capital from Aleppo.

The initiative in the insurgency appears to lie with aggressive, opportunistic and none-too-popular militant outfits, whose efforts to destroy the Assad regime are frustrated by suspicious Western governments unwilling to give them the money, arms, and support needed to finish the job - and Syria.

Under these circumstances, a political settlement, however desirable, seems unlikely unless a major force - probably not SNCORF, more likely a new Sunni strongman with a taste for order emerging from the Syrian army - tips the scales one way or another.

For the United States and the West - which are primarily interested in finessing their way out of a Syria mess that they, to a significant extent, helped create - the end will come soon enough.

For the PRC, which, for reasons of energy security, is committed to playing the long game in the Middle East, bloody chaos in Syria is just another challenge and opportunity for Beijing to advance its interests in the world's most dangerous neighborhood.

For the people of Syria, it must feel as if the agony will go on forever.

1. Syrian insurgents open fire on protestors, Voice of Russia, Nov 9, 2011.
2. Click here for his blog.
3. HE the Prime Minister Presides Over Expanded Meeting of Syrian Opposition, Alarabia, Nov 9, 2012.
4. Iraq's militia leaders reveal why they turned on al-Qaeda, BBC, Sep 29, 2010.
5. The Anbar Awakening, Washington Quarterly, Jan 2009.
6. Why Did Violence Plummet? It Wasn't Just the Surge, Washington Post, Sep 8, 2008.
7. With Eye on Aid, Syria Opposition Signs Unity Deal, NY Times, Nov 11, 2012.
8. China signals more active role in world affairs, USA Today, Nov 9, 2012.
9. Syrian wheel of fortune spins China's way, Asia Times Online, Jul 28, 2012.
10. A Chinese vision begins to emerge, Asia Times Online, Feb 25, 2012.
11. New Syrian opposition bloc wins recognition, role remains dubious, China Daily, Nov 13, 2012.