Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Big Change in China's Death Penalty Policy

The Chinese government has announced new legislation marking a major change in its death penalty policy:
China's official Xinhua News Agency hailed the amendment as "the most important reform of capital punishment in China in more than two decades."

The change "deprives the provincial people's courts of the final say on issuing death sentences," the agency said. "Death penalties handed out by provincial courts must be reviewed and ratified by the Supreme People's Court."

The change adopted by the legislature Tuesday enshrines last year's announcement by the Supreme People's Court that it would start reviewing all death sentences, ending a 23-year-old practice of giving the final review to provincial courts.

"It's great news. This is a big step forward for China's legal system and human rights," said Li Heping, a prominent activist lawyer.

"It's going to have a psychological effect on local judges when they are making decisions because they are going to be afraid that if they approve capital punishment, the supreme court will overrule them," Li said.
China is said to carry out more court-ordered executions than any other country in the world, and many of these cases have been problematic to say the least - riddled with errors, carried out in haste with no opportunity for judicial review, in a process that is arbitrary in its uneven application. Unquestionably innocent people have been put to death.

I'm against the death penalty. To me it's a mark of shame that my own country pratices state-sanctioned executions. But it's a step in the right direction to at least apply the ultimate penalty with some care and opportunity for redress.

The cynical part of me wonders if this is another part of the Central government's efforts to reign in unruly and disobedient local governments. The optimist hopes that it marks a further strengthening of a rule of law in China with a foundation of justice, as opposed to the whims of authority.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Vegas, Baby...

Okay, I don't get Vegas. I've never been interested in gambling (and can someone please explain to me what poker is doing in ESPN? On what planet does this constitute a sport?), and the whole sort of tacky aesthetic of Las Vegas only amuses me in small, infrequent doses. I mean, I got a pretty good giggle out of Caeser's Palace, when I saw it a couple of years ago, but as a vacation destination? I don't get it.

A lot of Asians apparently do, according to this LA Times report, and Las Vegas is going all out to make them welcome:
In almost every way, Las Vegas is catering to Asians, offering Asian entertainers, high-stakes baccarat tournaments and rice congee by room service. The festivities and decorations for Chinese New Year have become second only to those for New Year's Eve...

...In part, Vegas is reacting to the success of gaming in Macao - and hoping to capitalize on it. The Chinese territory's 22 casinos, with their proximity to the sheer wealth and population of China, are viewed as competitors and appetizers for Vegas' allure. This year casino gambling revenue in Macao is expected to edge past that of Las Vegas. Each locale brings in more than $6.5 billion.

"There's no question in our minds that as more and more Chinese customers experience Macao, their natural curiosity is going to make them find out what the major leagues are like in Las Vegas," said MGM Mirage spokesman Alan Feldman. (An MGM Grand is scheduled to open in Macao in 2007.)

"If you go to Macao and you really like it, the next thing on your list is going to be to come to Vegas."

As tourism markets go, China is a jackpot in the making. Within five to 10 years, overseas travel will lure an estimated 100 million Chinese annually, a figure that will dwarf every other market in the world, tourism officials said.
One Vegas tour operator is quoted as saying, "For China, in their mentality, this is the ultimate destination."

Like I said, I don't get it. But who am I to argue with slot machines in restrooms and a pina colada-scented volcano?

Thursday, October 26, 2006

No to "Predatory Development"?

From the always invaluable Three Gorges Probe comes some relatively good news about plans to dam Asia's last free-flowing major river:
China's minister of water resources has poured cold water on the plan to build 13 dams on the Nu River in the southwest of the country, calling the proposal a form of "predatory development."

In a speech Tuesday [Oct. 24] at the University of Hong Kong, Wang Shucheng indicated high-level disapproval of the plan to build a string of large dams on the Nu as it flows through the Three Parallel Rivers National Park in Yunnan province.

Mr. Wang said concerns related to the park -- parts of which were designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2003 -- as well as "downstream national interests," made it impossible to continue with the original plan.

China shares the Nu River with Burma and Thailand, where it is known as the Thanlwin (in Burmese) or the Salween (in English).
I said this was "relatively" good news, because though it appears the plan will be drastically scaled back, there will still be dams on the Nu River:
However, in his speech -- covered by several Hong Kong newspapers, including Ming Pao and Hong Kong Commercial Daily -- Mr. Wang also said that maintaining the status quo on Southeast Asia's last major free-flowing river is not an option.

Local governments are keen to exploit the Nu River's hydropower potential as soon as possible, Mr. Wang said, and he suggested that "one or two uncontroversial dams" will be built in the first instance.
There was some other good news in for China's downstream neighbors, India and Bangladesh, when Wang dismissed plans to divert water from a Tibetan river that affects their watersheds, calling the proposal "unnecessary, not feasible and unscientific."

If you're at all interested in environmental issues in China and the conflicts between central government policy and local governments' drive for development, Three Gorges Probe is a great site to bookmark. Three Gorges Probe also reports on the efforts of Chinese activists to protect the environment and the rights of local people whose lives are all too often disrupted by massive infrastructure projects and environmental degradation.

As I've said in the past, environmental issues are an area around which Chinese citizens have been able to organize and express themselves politically - if not often successfully, this sort of activism still offers a model for greater participation in civic life for ordinary Chinese people. I'll always remember that one of the first semi-independent acts of the National People's Congress was a vote on the proposed Three Gorges Dam in which a majority (or close to it) of delegates abstained. At the time, this was an act of near-rebellion.

The way that such issues are settled in the future is a harbinger of what kind of country China will become.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Road Trip!

I'm driving up north for a few days to visit relatives and sight-see, so I don't know if I'll have the time (or inclination) to post.

In the meantime, the midterm election is getting close. Please consider donating or volunteering. If you're in California, you might wanna throw a few $ Debra Bowen's way - she's running for Secretary of State and has been very outspoken about the problems with electronic voting and the need to ensure the integrity of our elections. It's a close race, and she could use the dough.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

"A blank check drawn against our freedom"

Olbermann on the death of habeas corpus. His message to Bush:

The distance of history will recognize that the threat this generation of Americans needed to take seriously… was you.
Jonathan Turley too:
The Congress just gave the President despotic powers and you could hear the yawn across the country as people turned to Dancing With the Stars.
Watch them both.

Thanks to crooks & liars and SusanUnPC at noquarter.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Hate Crime

The FBI reports a 6% drop in hate crimes last year.
The vast majority of hate crimes in both years were motivated by race, according the reports, which detailed the data based on so-called "single-bias" incidents. That means the crime was motivated by only one kind of bias against the victim, according to the FBI.

Race-based criminal activity accounted for 54.7 percent of hate crimes last year, up slightly from 52.9 percent in 2004, the FBI found. Another 17 percent of hate crimes in 2005 targeted victims for their religious beliefs, and 14.2 percent for their sexual orientation.
Seeing this phrase, "single-bias incidents," leads me to wonder: why aren't crimes committed against women considered hate crimes? Crimes like rape, for instance. Salon's "Broadsheet" asks the same question, citing the Amish school murders, where only girls were targeted, and quoting the New York Times' Bob Herbert:
"Imagine if a gunman had gone into a school, separated the kids up on the basis of race or religion, and then shot only the black kids. Or only the white kids. Or only the Jews. There would have been thunderous outrage. The country would have first recoiled in horror, and then mobilized in an effort to eradicate that kind of murderous bigotry. There would have been calls for action and reflection. And the attack would have been seen for what it really was: a hate crime."

When Broadsheet covered the issue two weeks ago, we saw the killings much the way Herbert does, but we were in the minority -- later that week, Ms. Magazine's wire service noted that analysis of the targeted killings was mostly restricted to the feminist blogosphere. Herbert suggests that most media outlets glossed over the victims' gender because we've all become desensitized to violence against women and girls: "[No outcry] occurred," he wrote, "because these were just girls, and we have become so accustomed to living in a society saturated with misogyny that violence against females is more or less to be expected. Stories about the rape, murder and mutilation of women and girls are staples of the news, as familiar to us as weather forecasts.
"American misogyny and the related objectification of women are the great invisible, mechanisms for eroding the status of women and girls that work best when they're not identified as such," Salon's Page Rockwell concludes.

I realize that applying the "hate crime" label has all kinds of legal complexities that I don't necessarily get. But sometimes, when I consider the culture we live in, it's hard not to conclude that people can get away with saying things about women that they'd have a hard time saying about any other class of people. Homophobia and gay bashing is pervasive, but you write a song advocating it, you'll pay a price.

But bashing women? This evening, I rode my bike to the gym. In the parking lot was a over-chromed SUV, whose occupant was blasting some hip-hop tune. For some reason, we all had to hear it. I mean, I'm locking up my bike, taking off the light, doing things that take time, and he's standing by his SUV, pumping his fist. Every line had "bitches" in it. You know? Capping the ho's and such.

I thought about going up to the guy and asking him why the fuck he felt like he had to share his stupid, hateful crap with everybody in the goddamn parking lot, but as he was about 275 lbs., most of which was muscle, I decided to do my workout instead.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Bike Therapy

So a couple of years ago, I got fat.

I don't mean, hugely obese, I just mean, kinda chunky. Like, 20, 25 pounds more than I should be. Or more than I'm used to being, at any rate. I'm not sure. I was sort of in denial about the whole thing, so I never went out of my way to check.

It happened for a number of reasons. Encroaching middle-age, a growing fondness for yuppie wine and cheese, dating. No, really. Because dating frequently involves going out for dinner (I rarely eat dinner). I decided to stop doing that, but by then, the damage was well underway. The final blow was home ownership. Not because I am doing anything like, fixing up my home to the detriment of fitness. But my old place, the apartment where I lived for many years, was right by the beach. Thus, no parking. So no matter what else I did during the day, regardless of whether I went to the gym or sat on my butt, every day I drove my car, I had to go find it (forgetting where I parked was especially good for exercise purposes). And every day I parked it, I had to walk home.

It's not like I became a slug when I moved. I've gone to a gym and done weight-training for years, and I love to walk. But that daily, incremental exercise really made a difference. It's easy to get lazy and hardly notice it.

At the end of last year, I decided Something Must Be Done. I'm not sure what triggered that realization - perhaps trying on a pair of previously baggy pants and not being able to button them. Also, I have a long-standing, chronic back problem. I've always looked at this as a mixed bag. On the one hand, I'd rather not be in pain and unable to move, or be limited in my physical activities. On the other, my bad back has kept me somewhat honest. I know if I don't get enough exercise or if I get too fat - if I don't take care of myself - I'm going to pay for it.

The last time my back went out was November, 2004. I couldn't drive my car and walked with a shuffle, which was how I'd make it to my chiropractor, who thankfully is located about a fifteen minute walk from me (25 minutes when my back was out). I'd hobble down my very scenic urban artery, past the 99 Cent Yoshino Bowl and the methadone clinic, with a metaphoric sign on my back reading, "Mug Me!"

On the other hand, it was a blessing to be on heavy narcotics when the election results came in.

Anyway, like I said, around the end of last year, I decided that I needed to get into a serious fitness program. I even made a New Year's Resolution. It was vague, something like, "I gotta lose some weight, okay?" Because I'm not a New Year's Resolution sort of gal. I figured if I didn't get too specific, I wouldn't put too much pressure on myself, and I'd be more likely to succeed.

I should have realized that this was a bogus construct. Had I not finally come to the realization that discipline has its place? That though I had few rules about writing, one of them is to set clear goals? To write every night, two hours, two pages? And how much this helped my productivity, even when I didn't always manage to hit those goals?

What got me on the Road to Fitness was happenstance. I work at a film studio, and one day, this Pilates "spa" came to the lot to demonstrate their services. I decided to check it out. One five to ten minute session on the Pilates reformer (that's the basic bench-like machine), and I was hooked. I could tell how great this was for my back and how good it made me feel.

Luckily (in a perverse sort of way), my back problem is not obscure or controversial. It shows up very clearly on an X-ray. It's the sort of thing where orthopedists tell you, "well, at some point you'll probably need surgery." So, since I'm one of the rare inhabitants of the Planet of Good Insurance Coverage, I could sign up for Pilates/physical therapy sessions, courtesy of my healthcare plan.

I'd like to feel guilty about that, but I don't. My back was getting worse, and though I hadn't missed much work because of it in recent years, I could easily see more missed work in the future.

Besides, the chronic pain was making me cranky.

So I started doing three Pilates sessions a week. They were scheduled, so I always went. I worked with trainers and physical therapists, who told me what to do, which I did. What an incredible experience. You don't always know how out of shape or weak you've gotten until you suddenly get a lot stronger.

While I'd do my exercises on the Reformer, catching up on all the latest Spa gossip (and let me tell you, this place could be a reality show - "As The Spa Turns"), I'd also spin my theories about how to reform health care. I have it all figured out. Some sort of single-payer system to eliminate waste and unnecessary paperwork. Huge incentives for wellness programs. Like, we could train some of these soon to be out-of-work insurance company employees to be personal trainers. Because everybody who wants to get fit should have access to a trainer to help them do so. It's so much easier when you're working one-on-one. And everybody benefits. A more fit population uses less healthcare. Big Business and Government benefit. Former insurance company salespeople get out from behind those desks and help people get healthier. We all feel better and are less cranky and look cuter in our clothes.

The next thing that happened was, I bought a bike.

God knows why I never rode bikes around the beach before. Maybe because where I lived, it was so easy to walk everywhere (especially after we gentrified out of the "Mug Me!" era). I'm not that much farther from the beach or restaurants now, just far enough where walking doesn't always feel like the automatic option it did before.

But this is such an amazing place to ride a bike. I've always loved Venice, the diversity, the odd details in unexpected places. The Venice bike path, not so much. It's too crowded, and it's full of clueless people — I mean, entire families, standing on the bike path, mouths open, holding their babies fer crissakes! Riding on the Venice bike path feels entirely too much like my daily commute.

Then I discovered the South Bay and Ballona Creek bike paths.

You go through Marina Del Rey, a place I always associated with "swingles," and the bike path takes you through an outdoor fitness course, past a library, and then, in and around the docks. Piers, slips, and boats, with seagulls and the slap of tackle in the wind. You go a ways, and there's this place called "Fisherman's Village," a sort of vaguely tacky yet nostalgically appealing tourist attraction, a series of restaurants and ice-cream stands along the docks. There's a big sign that says, "Cyclists Welcome!" I keep thinking, dang, I want to stop at the El Torito and have a beer and watch the boats. Haven't done it yet, but I will.

You pass that, and there's a Coast Guard Station tucked away in a dark, leafy alcove, this almost random apartment complex dating from the sixties or early seventies, and then, the entrance to the Ballona Creek Bikepath. Go east, it takes you to Culver City. I haven't tried that yet. West, you bike towards a causeway that connects you to Playa Del Rey. Along the channel are boaters and pelicans. It's incredibly beautiful, and surprisingly unpopulated. When you make the turn into Playa Del Rey, even more so. There's an arched bridge that connects in a hard right angle from the Ballona Creek path. The times I've done this, I've seen cyclists hanging out at the bridge's arch, leaning against the thick, cement rails, drinking water and resting. They generally wave at other cyclists who pass. I'm not sure what that's about, other than general camraderie, but I like it. I've always liked suddenly belonging to a club, I don't mean something exclusive, but where you realize that you like something, and other people think it's cool too, and you can just sort of enjoy that together.

Heading south through Playa, it's just so gorgeous and so unexpected. The beaches are huge and empty. So is the bike path. I've only gotten as far as Dockweiler Beach. That's the one in line with LAX, where you can have open fires on the sand. It too is beautiful and relatively empty. And you can watch jets take off, count the rivets on their bellies as they pass overhead, heading out to sea.

I really want to go further. All the way down to Redondo Beach, maybe Palos Verdes after that. I'm realizing there's something addictive about the activity. I do it, and I want to do it more. I've always had a restless personality, but I didn't realize I could feed it this way, through something as simple as hopping on a bike (generally my coping mechanisms are way less straightforward).

I want to ride to work, a day or two a week. I used to think that would be impossible. Too much traffic. Too many distracted drivers yakking on their cellphones. Stuff that drives me crazy when I'm in my car.

Then I looked on a website that maps bike routes and thought about it some more. I could see some options that might be okay, even kind of interesting.

But now I want a better bike! The one I'm riding is a Diamondback Wildwood, which is a rugged sort of "comfort" bike. I'm enjoying it a lot, but it's heavy (really heavy) and not the most nimble thing out there. I still need a bike that can cope with bad streets (can I tell you about potholes in Venice?), bikepaths and the vagaries of the urban commute.

Any suggestions?

Friday, October 13, 2006

Work for the Union Label?

The New York Times reports on a proposed new law that would dramatically increase the power of China's labor unions - at least on paper:
China is planning to adopt a new law that seeks to crack down on sweatshops and protect workers’ rights by giving labor unions real power for the first time since it introduced market forces in the 1980’s.

The move, which underscores the government’s growing concern about the widening income gap and threats of social unrest, is setting off a battle with American and other foreign corporations that have lobbied against it by hinting that they may build fewer factories here...

...It would apply to all companies in China, but its emphasis is on foreign-owned companies and the suppliers to those companies...

...But it is not clear how effectively such a new labor law would be carried out through this vast land because local officials have tended to ignore directives from the central government or seek ways around them.
It will be interesting to see how this plays out. China's only legal union is controlled by the state - but still, giving an organization of workers the ability to negotiate contracts and working conditions brings with it the possibility of empowerment outside of strict CCP control. The article also notes:
In a surprisingly democratic move, China asked for public comment on the draft law last spring and received more than 190,000 responses, mostly from labor activists. The American Chamber of Commerce sent in a lengthy response with objections to the proposals. The European Chamber of Commerce also responded.

The law would impose heavy fines on companies that do not comply. And the state-controlled union — the only legal union in China — would gain greater power through new collective-bargaining rights or pursuing worker grievances and establishing work rules. One provision in the proposed law reads, “Labor unions or employee representatives have the right, following bargaining conducted on an equal basis, to execute with employers collective contracts on such matters as labor compensation, working hours, rest, leave, work safety and hygiene, insurance, benefits, etc.”

I thought it was "harmless fraternity pranks"...

He really said this:
Republican Rep. Christopher Shays, who is in a tough re-election fight, said Friday the Abu Ghraib prison abuses were more about pornography than torture...

..."Now I've seen what happened in Abu Ghraib, and Abu Ghraib was not torture," Shays said at a debate Wednesday.

"It was outrageous, outrageous involvement of National Guard troops from (Maryland) who were involved in a sex ring and they took pictures of soldiers who were naked," added Shays. "And they did other things that were just outrageous. But it wasn't torture."
Oh, and whose fault is it? Why, the liberals, of course! James Wolcott brings us this excerpt from Dinesh D'Souza's upcoming book, "The Enemy At Home":
"Although I do not believe that Abu Ghraib reflects America's predatory intentions toward the Muslim world, I can see why Muslims would see it this way. In one crucial respect, however, the Muslim critics of Abu Ghraib were wrong. Contrary to their assertions, Abu Ghraib did not reflect the shared values of America, it reflected the sexual immodesty of liberal America [my italics]. Lynndie England and Charles Graner were two wretched individuals from red America who were trying to act out the fantasies of Blue America... This was bohemianism, West Virginia-style."
Wolcott elaborates:
The theme of The Enemy at Home, as in so many conservative tracts, is that whatever goes wrong, liberals and liberalism are always the ones at fault. Conservatives may make mistakes, but their mistakes (such as Bush's on WMDs and the welcome we would get in Iraq) are well-intentioned and rooted in idealism, not in the moral rot where liberalism pitches its tent. Indeed, when conservatives--heroes in error, to use Ahmed Chalabi's memorable phrase--go astray, it's often because they're following liberals' lousy example. "In trying to defend the indefensible [at Abu Ghraib], conservatives became cheap apologists for liberal debauchery." To my knowledge, liberals haven't been blamed yet for the recent slaughter-execution of Amish schoolgirls, but I suppose it's only a matter of time before they hang that one on us too.
Words fail me. Thankfully they don't fail Wolcott.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Is this a "comma", George?

I'm still posting over at peking duck, so if you are interested in more China stories, check it out.

Horrific story about conditions for women in post-invasion Iraq:
Iraqis do not like to talk about it much, but there is an understanding of what is going on these days. If a young woman is abducted and murdered without a ransom demand, she has been kidnapped to be raped. Even those raped and released are not necessarily safe: the response of some families to finding that a woman has been raped has been to kill her.

Iraq's women are living with a fear that is increasing in line with the numbers dying violently every month. They die for being a member of the wrong sect and for helping their fellow women. They die for doing jobs that the militants have decreed that they cannot do: for working in hospitals and ministries and universities. They are murdered, too, because they are the softest targets for Iraq's criminal gangs.

Iraq's women live in terror of speaking their opinions; of going out to work; or defying the strict new prohibitions on dress and behaviour applied across Iraq by Islamist militants, both Sunni and Shia. They live in fear of their husbands, too, as women's rights have been undermined by the country's postwar constitution that has taken power from the family courts and given it to clerics.
What a horrible, sickening situation, all because of the grandiose ambitions of Bush, Cheney and the neocons. Close to 3,000 American soldiers dead, tens of thousands seriously wounded and mentally traumatized, and so many Iraqi lives lost and shattered that we can't even begin to provide a proper accounting of them.

We are covered in the blood of the dead, and it will be a very long time before this damned spot will fade and our hands will ever be clean.

UPDATE Digby reports that some 655,000 Iraqis have died as a result of the American invasion.

"Here's the smell of the blood still: all the perfumes of Arabia
Will not sweeten this little hand."

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Bad Boss, Bad Diplomacy

For all of China's recent and much touted diplomatic successes in Africa and elsewhere, any friendships forged won't last long if this kind of thing keeps up:
Deep in the tunnel of the Collum mine, coal dust swirls thickly, and it's stifling for workers such as Chengo Nguni. He describes his $2-a-day job with a sigh: His supervisor yells incomprehensibly in Chinese. His rubber boots leak. The buttons to control the flow of ore out of the mine often deliver an electric shock.

But the worst thing about life in the Chinese-owned mine in southern Zambia is that there is no such thing as a day off. Ever.
The unhappiness with the Chinese goes far beyond a few disgruntled workers and up to the highest levels of government:
The growing resentment sparked an acrimonious debate in Zambia's recent presidential elections, with Chinese Ambassador Li Baodong making comments suggesting that Beijing might sever ties and investors might pull out if leading opposition candidate Michael Sata won the Sept. 28 vote.

Sata, who at one point threatened to expel Chinese traders if he became president, lost the election, and he alleged massive vote fraud. In the heat of the campaign, his Patriotic Front claimed that the use of Chinese computers to tally the count could skew results in the government's favor, an accusation strongly denied by Chinese Embassy officials.

Sata argued that most Chinese investors in Zambia were exploiters who brought the country no benefit. He accused Li of interfering in the election.

"I find the reaction by the Chinese government very childish and dictatorial," Sata said, accusing China of campaigning for the ruling Movement for Multiparty Democracy, which has been in power 15 years.
It's one thing to make deals with other governments without any regard for ideology or character of said governments. It's quite another to exploit foreign workforces. Nationalism and resentment of outsiders are traits you'll find in just about every country in the world, perhaps submerged but ready to rise to the surface if conditions are right.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Life Lesson

I'm not religious, and I don't think religious beliefs are necessary to act in a decent, moral way. That said, we could learn a lot from these people:
Dozens of Amish neighbors came out Saturday to mourn the quiet milkman who killed five of their young girls and wounded five more in a brief, unfathomable rampage.

Charles Carl Roberts IV, 32, was buried in his wife's family plot behind a small Methodist church, a few miles from the one-room schoolhouse he stormed Monday.

His wife, Marie, and their three small children looked on as Roberts was buried beside the pink, heart-shaped grave of the infant daughter whose death nine years ago apparently haunted him, said Bruce Porter, a fire department chaplain from Colorado who attended the service.

About half of perhaps 75 mourners on hand were Amish.

"It's the love, the forgiveness, the heartfelt forgiveness they have toward the family. I broke down and cried seeing it displayed," said Porter, who had come to Pennsylvania to offer what help he could. He said Marie Roberts was also touched.

"She was absolutely deeply moved, by just the love shown," Porter said.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

"Terror and Guilt"

Wow. Olbermann seems to up the ante with each new "Special Comment." In this one, he calls Bush a serial liar, questions his moral fitness for office and pretty much labels him a coward. But this isn't just name-calling; he uses example after example and constructs a devastating indictment of the Bush/Cheney regime, their disregard for truth, for democracy, for the Constitution, for anything other than the continuance of their own power.

You can watch it (and read the transcript) at the invaluable Crooks and Liars.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

The Interesting Mr. Zeng

I'm guest-posting at Peking Duck for the next week, so I'll be doing my best to feed the ducklings over there with fresh content – thus the preponderence of China stories here as well.

I make no claim of being a real China historian, but because of my experiences there, back when, I did get interested (well, obsessive) about recent Chinese history, specifically the revolutionary period and the Peoples' Republic pre-Deng.

In a system where there is no official opposition, with the sort of factional and court politics practiced under Mao, you frequently find political figures who are, in a somewhat uncharitable interpretation, the regime's fixers. Their loyalities are fluid, or in some cases, they are able to take a very long view towards the accomplishment of their own goals. In a more positive reading, they are coalition builders, helping to bridge the gaps between bitter rivals and move projects forward. The much revered Zhou Enlai was a figure of this sort, the ultimate survivor, who only advanced his own agenda when he was relatively certain of success and rarely, if ever, went against the high tide, even if what was being proposed went very much against his own instincts and preferences. The Mao/Zhou relationship was complex and fraught with ambiguity. Mao depended on Zhou but never fully trusted him, while Zhou acted the part of the loyal, "good" official until the day he died, even though Mao's more "revolutionary" programs seemed the antithesis of Zhou's innately practical sensibilities.

Which is a long-winded, roundabout introduction to Joseph Kahn's analysis of the ongoing anti-corruption probe that brought down Shanghai party leader Chen Liangyu, among others:
The investigation, the largest of its kind since China first pursued market-style changes to its economy more than a quarter-century ago, was planned and supervised by Zeng Qinghong, China’s vice president and the day-to-day manager of Communist Party affairs, people informed about the operation said.

They said Mr. Zeng had used the investigation to force provincial leaders to heed Beijing’s economic directives, sideline officials loyal to the former top leader, Jiang Zemin, and strengthen Mr. Zeng’s own hand as well as that of his current master, President Hu Jintao.

Aside from frightening officials who have grown accustomed to increasingly conspicuous corruption in recent years, the crackdown could give Mr. Hu greater leeway to carry out his agenda for broader welfare benefits and stronger pollution controls, which may prove popular in China today.

Some critics fear that it may also consolidate greater power in the hands of a leader who has consistently sought to restrict the news media, censor the Web and punish peaceful political dissent...

...Several party officials and well-informed political observers said they believed that the investigation had not yet reached its climax. They say Mr. Zeng hopes to dismiss two fellow members of the Politburo Standing Committee, Jia Qinglin and Huang Ju, who are under pressure to take “political responsibility” for corruption that has occurred in Beijing and Shanghai, their respective areas of influence.

If he succeeds in removing officials who serve on the nine-member Standing Committee, the party’s top leadership, the purge will amount to the biggest political shake-up since 1989, when Deng Xiaoping ousted Zhao Ziyang, then the party’s general secretary, after the crackdown on democracy protests in Beijing.

It would also be likely to seal Mr. Zeng’s reputation as China’s political mastermind, who mixes personal ambition with a nearly legendary ability to deliver results for his superiors. Officially ranked No. 5 in the party hierarchy, he is widely seen as exercising more authority within the party than anyone except Mr. Hu.
Here's where it gets interesting. According to Kahn, until 2004, when Zeng Qinghong joined forces with Hu Jintao to push Jiang Zemin from his last post, Zeng was widely seen as being close to Jiang:
But Mr. Zeng’s campaign to remove some Jiang loyalists may end up strengthening his own hand as well as Mr. Hu’s, some party officials suggested. The reason is that Mr. Zeng has become the standard-bearer for a wide array of political interests.

The son of one of Mao’s first security chiefs, Mr. Zeng maintains close ties to the sons and daughters of Communist China’s founding fathers and has relatives in the military. He has supporters among those who favor deeper capitalist-style changes to the economy and financial system.

Some Chinese intellectuals say he has signaled an openness to political change. Mr. Hu, in contrast, is viewed as cautious and doctrinaire.

Mr. Hu has sought to promote officials he trusts from his days as a provincial official in western China and as the head of the national Communist Youth League in the 1980’s. Though he now has broad authority, his traditional base is considered narrower and less influential than that of Mr. Zeng.

The political dance between the men underlines uncertainties about the political succession scheduled to take place in 2007. At that time the party will hold a congress, as it does every five years, to approve a new lineup of officials for the Politburo as well as other top party, government and provincial positions.

Party officials say that while Mr. Hu and Mr. Zeng have worked together to consolidate their own power, they have not agreed on choices for the Standing Committee or some top provincial posts. That suggests that their alliance possibly temporary and that the country’s politics could remain volatile.

“I think that at this point neither of them has the power to dictate the future,” one party official said. “They need each other, but that does not mean they trust each other.”

((hat tip to Andrew Leonard at salon's How the World Works)

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Trust Issues?

Catching up on my newspapers, I came across this article in last week's Los Angeles Times about a "crisis of trust" in China:
Even as China surges onto the world stage as if powered by rocket fuel, Earth's most populous country is beset by trust issues that would test anyone.

Rules aren't clear and must be navigated on the fly. The food supply is full of life- and health-threatening fakes. Factories spew chemicals into the air and water at alarming rates. Power and connections far outweigh justice, and social tension is growing.

Meanwhile, corrupt local officials pay lip service to Communist Party ideals as they line their pockets at the expense of the general population. Land that farmers have tilled for generations can be seized on a moment's notice in a system that doesn't recognize private property. Friends cheat friends and uncles bilk nephews for short-term gain.

Though the widespread insecurity is difficult to quantify, analysts say it is taking an economic and psychological toll, and making governing more difficult.

"China is in a very serious trust crisis," said Zheng Yefu, a sociologist at Peking University and author of the book "On Trust." "I'd say we're looking at a minimum of a generation, maybe 20 or 30 years, to recover, but it could take two or three times that long."

Experts cite several reasons for the dearth of trust. Some point to the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution and other wrenching political campaigns in the first decades of communist rule that ended centuries-old traditions and forced family members and friends to denounce one another, severing basic human bonds.

"Mutual trust among people because of various political movements has deteriorated to the lowest level that any society can possibly hit," said Hung Huang, chief executive of China Interactive Media Group and star of the recent film "Perpetual Motion," about a woman out to determine which of her friends is having an affair with her husband. "There's also a very different starting point: In America, you're innocent until proven guilty. In China, you're guilty until proven innocent."

Others cite the influence of a market economy on a society without a well-developed legal or regulatory system. Some say a lack of religion or meaningful belief system under communism leaves people morally adrift.
The article portrays a China where mistrust pervades every level of society, from food supplies — "There are scandals involving carcinogenic noodles, poisoned melon seeds, waste-filled pancakes, substandard wine and water-injected pork, among others" — to marriages — "Cheating on your spouse and cheating the public are closely related, according to the state-run New China News Agency, which reported last year that 95% of Chinese officials convicted of corruption had mistresses."

Some of these issues are common to any modern society, where relationships are freuqently impersonal (ask me about my daily experience of road rage here in Los Angeles). So is what's going on in China unique? Or is it just a matter of degree?

The Program

"This debate is occurring because of the Supreme Court's ruling that said that we must conduct ourselves under the Common Article 3 of the Geneva Convention.

And that Common Article 3 says that, you know, "There will be no outrages upon human dignity." It's like -- it's very vague. What does that mean, "outrages upon human dignity"? That's a statement that is wide open to interpretation.

And what I'm proposing is that there be clarity in the law so that our professionals will have no doubt that that which they're doing is legal.

You know, it's a -- and so the piece of legislation I sent up there provides our professionals that which is needed to go forward.

The first question that we've got to ask is: Do we need the program?

I believe we do need the program. And I detained in a speech in the East Room what the program has yielded; in other words, the kind of information we get when we interrogate people within the law...

...And we need to be able to question them, because it helps yield information, information necessary for us to be able to do our job.

Now, the court said that you've got to live under Article 3 of the Geneva Convention. And the standards are so vague that our professionals won't be able to carry forward the program, because they don't want to be tried as war criminals. They don't want to break the law.

These are decent, honorable citizens who are on the front line of protecting the American people. And they expect our government to give them clarity about what is right and what is wrong in the law. And that's what we have asked to do...

...I will tell you this -- and I've spent a lot of time on this issue, as you can imagine. And I've talked to professionals, people I count on for advice. These are the people who are going to represent those on the front line protecting this country.

They're not going forward with the program. They're professionals -- will not step up unless there's clarity in the law.

So Congress has got a decision to make. You want the program to go forward or not? I strongly recommend that this program go forward in order for us to be able to protect America."
President George Bush, Sept. 15, 2006, White House Press Conference.

From the latest Rolling Stone:
In July 2002, a Special Forces unit in southeast Afghanistan received intelligence that a group of Al Qaeda fighters was operating out of a mud-brick compound in Ab Khail, a small hill town near the Pakistani border. The Taliban regime had fallen seven months earlier, but the rough border regions had not yet been secured. When the soldiers arrived at the compound, they looked through a crack in the door and saw five men armed with assault rifles sitting inside. The soldiers called for the men to surrender. The men refused. The soldiers sent Pashto translators into the compound to negotiate. The men promptly slaughtered the translators. The American soldiers called in air support and laid siege to the compound, bombing and strafing it until it was flat and silent. They walked into the ruins. They had not gotten far when a wounded fighter, concealed behind a broken wall, threw a grenade, killing Special Forces Sgt. Christopher Speer. The soldiers immediately shot the fighter three times in the chest, and he collapsed.

When the soldiers got close, they saw that he was just a boy. Fifteen years old and slightly built, he could have passed for thirteen. He was bleeding heavily from his wounds, but he was -- unbelievably -- alive. The soldiers stood over him.

"Kill me," he murmured, in fluent English. "Please, just kill me."

His name was Omar Khadr. Born into a fundamentalist Muslim family in Toronto, he had been prepared for jihad since he was a small boy. His parents, who were Egyptian and Palestinian, had raised him to believe that religious martyrdom was the highest achievement he could aspire to. In the Khadr family, suicide bombers were spoken of with great respect. According to U.S intelligence, Omar's father used charities as front groups to raise and launder money for Al Qaeda. Omar's formal military training -- bombmaking, assault-rifle marksmanship, combat tactics -- before he turned twelve. For nearly a year before the Ab Khail siege, according to the U.S. government, Omar and his father and brothers had fought with the Taliban against American and Northern Alliance forces in Afghanistan. Before that, they had been living in Jalalabad, with Osama bin Laden. Omar spent much of his adolescence in Al Qaeda compounds.

At Bagram, he was repeatedly brought into interrogation rooms on stretchers, in great pain. Pain medication was withheld, apparently to induce cooperation. He was ordered to clean floors on his hands and knees while his wounds were still wet. When he could walk again, he was forced to stand for hours at a time with his hands tied above a door frame. Interrogators put a bag over his head and held him still while attack dogs leapt at his chest. Sometimes he was kept chained in an interrogation room for so long he urinated on himself.

After the invasion of Afghanistan, President Bush decided, in violation of the Geneva Convention, that any adolescent apprehended by U.S. forces could be treated as an adult at age sixteen...

...Before boarding a C-130 transport to Guantanamo, Omar was dressed in an orange jumpsuit and hog-chained: shackled hand and foot, a waist chain cinching his hands to his stomach, another chain connecting the shackles on his hands to those on his feet. At both wrist and ankle, the shackles bit. The cuffs permanently scarred many prisoners on the flight, causing them to lose feeling in their limbs for several days or weeks afterward. Hooded and kneeling on the tarmac with the other prisoners, Omar waited for many hours. His knees sent intensifying pain up into his body and then went numb.

Just before he got on the plane, Omar was forced into sensory-deprivation gear that the military uses to disorient prisoners prior to interrogation. The guards pulled black thermal mittens onto Omar's hands and taped them hard at the wrists. They pulled opaque goggles over his eyes and placed soundproof earphones over his ears. They put a deodorizing mask over his mouth and nose. They bolted him, fully trussed, to a backless bench. Whichever limbs hadn't already lost sensation from the cuffs lost sensation from the high-altitude cold during the flight, which took fifteen hours. "There was points I wished to God that one of these MPs would go crazy and then shoot me," recalled one of the hundreds of detainees who have made the trip. "It was the only time in my life that I really wished for a bullet."

At Guantanamo, Omar was led, his senses still blocked, onto a bus that took the prisoners to a ferry dock. Some of the buses didn't have seats, and the prisoners usually sat cross-legged on the floor. Guards often lifted the prisoners' earphones, told them not to move, and when they moved -- helplessly, with the motion of the bus, like bowling pins -- started kicking them. The repeated blows often left detainees unable to walk for weeks.

After the ferry ride, Omar was evaluated at a base hospital. "Welcome to Israel," someone told him. Then he was locked in a steel cage eight feet long and six feet wide. Because the cage had a sink and squat-toilet and the bed was welded to the floor, the open floor space was comparable to that of a small walk-in closet. The cages had been hurriedly constructed from steel mesh and transoceanic shipping containers. Giant banana rats ran freely through the cells and across the roofs and shit everywhere: on beds, on sinks, on Korans. Prisoners were allowed only one five-minute shower each week; the cellblocks stood in a perpetual stench.

Omar's arrival at Guantanamo in October 2002 coincided with a fundamental turn in the administration's War on Terror. Within weeks of his arrival, at the authorization of President Bush, interrogators at the detention facility began using starkly inhumane techniques. Before Omar Khadr had even started to assimilate the wondrous horrors of Guantanamo Bay, his captors began to torture him.
A few months after Omar Khadr arrived at Guantanamo Bay, he was awakened by a guard around midnight. "Get up," the guard said. "You have a reservation." "Reservation" is the commonly used term at Gitmo for interrogation.

In the interrogation room, Omar's interviewer grew displeased with his level of cooperation. He summoned several MPs, who chained Omar tightly to an eye bolt in the center of the floor. Omar's hands and feet were shackled together; the eye bolt held him at the point where his hands and feet met. Fetally positioned, he was left alone for half an hour.

Upon their return, the MPs uncuffed Omar's arms, pulled them behind his back and recuffed them to his legs, straining them badly at their sockets. At the junction of his arms and legs he was again bolted to the floor and left alone. The degree of pain a human body experiences in this particular "stress position" can quickly lead to delirium, and ultimately to unconsciousness. Before that happened, the MPs returned, forced Omar onto his knees, and cuffed his wrists and ankles together behind his back. This made his body into a kind of bow, his torso convex and rigid, right at the limit of its flexibility. The force of his cuffed wrists straining upward against his cuffed ankles drove his kneecaps into the concrete floor. The guards left.

An hour or two later they came back, checked the tautness of his chains and pushed him over on his stomach. Transfixed in his bonds, Omar toppled like a figurine. Again they left. Many hours had passed since Omar had been taken from his cell. He urinated on himself and on the floor. The MPs returned, mocked him for a while and then poured pine-oil solvent all over his body. Without altering his chains, they began dragging him by his feet through the mixture of urine and pine oil. Because his body had been so tightened, the new motion racked it. The MPs swung him around and around, the piss and solvent washing up into his face. The idea was to use him as a human mop. When the MPs felt they'd successfully pretended to soak up the liquid with his body, they uncuffed him and carried him back to his cell. He was not allowed a change of clothes for two days.

The design of Omar Khadr's life at Guantanamo Bay apparently began as a theory in the minds of Air Force researchers. After the Korean War, the Air Force created a program called SERE -- Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape -- to help captured pilots resist interrogation. SERE's founders wanted to know what kind of torture was most destructive to the human psyche so that they could train pilots to withstand it. In experiments, they held subjects in dummy POW camps and had them starved, stripped naked and partially drowned. Administrators carefully noted the subjects' reactions, often measuring the levels of stress hormones in their blood.

The most effective form of torture turned out to have two components. The first is pain and harm delivered in unpredictable, sometimes illusory environments -- an absolute denial of physical comfort and spatial-temporal orientation. The second is a removal of the inner comfort of identity -- achieved by artfully humiliating people and coercing them to commit offenses against their own religion, dignity and morality, until they become unrecognizable to and ashamed of themselves.

SERE scientists came up with a variety of stress-torture techniques: sleep deprivation, sexual mortification, religious desecration, hooding, waterboarding. In SERE theory, the techniques are be used in concert and continuously -- coercive interrogation should become a life experience. This is Guantanamo Bay: To be held there is, per se, to be tortured. Behavioral scientists reportedly manage every aspect of detainees' lives. In one case, a psychologist told guards to limit a detainee to seven squares of toilet paper a day.

While he was at Guantanamo, Omar was beaten in the head, nearly suffocated, threatened with having his clothes taken indefinitely and, as at Bagram, lunged at by attack dogs while wearing a bag over his head. "Your life is in my hands," an intelligence officer told him during an interrogation in the spring of 2003. During the questioning, Omar gave an answer the interrogator did not like. He spat in Omar's face, tore out some of his hair and threatened to send him to Israel, Egypt, Jordan or Syria -- places where they tortured people without constraints: very slowly, analytically removing body parts. The Egyptians, the interrogator told Omar, would hand him to Askri raqm tisa -- Soldier Number Nine. Soldier Number Nine, the interrogator explained, was a guard who specialized in raping prisoners.

Omar's chair was removed. Because his hands and ankles were shackled, he fell to the floor. His interrogator told him to get up. Standing up was hard, because he could not use his hands. When he did, his interrogator told him to sit down again. When he sat, the interrogator told him to stand again. He refused. The interrogator called two guards into the room, who grabbed Omar by the neck and arms, lifted him into the air and dropped him onto the floor. The interrogator told them to do it again -- and again and again and again. Then he said he was locking Omar's case file in a safe: Omar would spend the rest of his life in a cell at Guantanamo Bay.

Several weeks later, a man who claimed to be Afghan interrogated Omar. He wore an American flag on his uniform pants. He said his name was Izmarai -- "lion" -- and he spoke in Farsi and occasionally in Pashto and English. Izmarai said a new prison was under construction in Afghanistan for uncooperative Guantanamo detainees. "In Afghanistan," Izmarai said, "they like small boys." He pulled out a photograph of Omar and wrote on it, in Pashto, "This detainee must be transferred to Bagram."

Omar was taken from his chair and short-shackled to an eye bolt in the floor, his hands behind his knees. He was left that way for six hours. On March 31st, 2003, Omar's security level was downgraded to "Level Four, with isolation." Everything in his cell was taken, and he spent a month without human contact in a windowless box kept at the approximate temperature of a refrigerator.
From all available evidence, some seventy percent of the detainees at Guantanamo are not guilty of crimes against the United States. They are guilty of nothing more than being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

But even if they are guilty, is this how we want to treat them? Is this my country?