A Publication of the Asia Pacific Media Network (APMN)

APMN was founded in 1998, as a trans-Pacific network of media and educational institutions, by U.S. journalist and syndicated columnist Tom Plate, then at the University of California, Los Angeles, now at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles.


June 8, 2016



       Stumped by Trump? Horrified by Hillary? Apprehensive about America?
       As a therapeutic aid, dear distinguished reader, this column proposes to examine - and even appreciate - a totally different style of public leadership: the low-key. Yes, that kind.
       Remember the old days? Remember Hu Jintao, the predecessor to China’s current maximum leader Xi Jinping? The uber-quiet Hu was widely assessed as so low-key as to not even require a key chain. But maybe second thoughts are in order about this whole business of political peacocks the strut their stuff even if they don't have any.
       Let’s start with a little insight from the late, great American writer E.B. White, in his touching tale The Trumpet of the Swan (1970):  “‘All [trumpteer] swans are vain,' explained the cob. 'It is right for swans to feel proud, graceful—that's what swans are for’.”
       Now apply this to the less graceful world of politics - as in: ‘All politicians are vain, but it is right for them to feel proud – that’s what politicians are for.” Like swans, perhaps we might say, politicians when they are in full crowing, obnoxious mode are simply being true to themselves. Expecting a political figure to be humble, as for a swan not to be vain, is to fight the nature of things.
        And so this year, as almost everyone in the world knows, a bevy of American trumpeter swans have been winging their way toward The White House. Last week, one of the last still wedging forward - Hillary Clinton – did a sort of politician’s swan dive from the heights of serious public policy to honk back at Donald Trump’s many prior public insults.  Originally billed as a foreign policy address, the speech was anything but. Many pro-Hillary commentators and her outright allies applauded, as in: This lady can honk with the worst of them!
        Maybe, but as we see it: really, there’s nobody that quite trumpets like The Don.
        Perhaps all Clinton’s swan dive proved is that birds of a political feather do flock together: In public politics, it sometimes seems as if nothing is too vulgar. The Don has already denounced the former U.S. secretary of state and First Lady as “crooked.” What could be a worse charge than that?
       Ah – there is at least one other calumny of consequence, far worse than “crooked.” It is, in today’s value system, the sin of being “colorless.”            
       Colorless – we recall- is exactly what our hard-hearted, colorful Western media dubbed Hu Jintao, who, between 2002 and 2012, served as paramount leader of China – the Communist Party’s General Secretary and the country’s president. This meant that for ten years he was one of the two most powerful leaders on the face of the earth. But the man got scant respect, at least in the West. A U.S. newsmagazine once dubbed him “cautious, colorless and corporate ... the kind of guy you wouldn't think twice about."
         It’s time for a reappraisal of Hu’s true hue – and of ‘colorless’ politicians in general – in a re-calibration of leaders whose colorlessness might simply hide (and even nurture?) a healthy measure of calm reflection. Maybe the Hu Jintao style, reflecting collective leadership, was less inherently colorless than properly cautious. “Colorful’ flares can trigger explosive flare-ups; a low-key, stay-calm style can prevent relations from going off-key or gang-bang.   
        Here is one telling example: the little-known story of President Hu’s state visit to the U.S. in January 2011.  To almost everyone’s surprise and relief - on both sides- it went quite well.  For his part, China’s president returned home impressed by the possibilities of reducing bilateral tensions and instructed the central government’s Propaganda Department to tone down the anti-American stuff. That moment of good feeling did not last forever, of course. But the story illustrates the point that colorlessness is not necessarily the enemy of effectiveness. It might even be a symptom of a statesmanship that values quiet results over prideful flamboyance.
        By contrast, the current, successor administration in China is anything but colorless. But all the pushing and shoving – rhetorical as well as naval, especially by Beijing, but Washington, too (swan diving?)– can make one nostalgic for the calming balm of calculated colorlessness. The escalating language over who owns what in the South China Sea is producing new tension, triggering an Asian arms race and coloring the very way America and China view each other.
        As the experienced and extremely knowledgeable Susan Shirk, now a University of California professor, and former State Department star in the Bill Clinton administration, once pointed out in a discussion on the US-China relationship: “Over the past several years, Americans have noticed with apprehension a steady drumbeat of [mainland] media messages about America’s supposed ‘containment’ of China that have undoubtedly been officially encouraged. The precedents of Germany and Japan show how this kind of commercialized semi-controlled media, by creating myths and mobilizing anger against perceived foreign enemies, can drag a country into war.”
        China is of course a nuclear power. The entire world would be better off, to be sure, if the U.S. relinquished a substantial portion of its nuclear vanity and compacted it down to China’s more modest arsenal. But for that day of disarmament-control epiphany to ever come, considerably more mutual trust, reasoned discourse and deft diplomacy will be needed.  That’s one good reason to leave open the possibility of appreciation of political leaders that offer the calm of colorlessness rather than the trumpet of the Don. The non-grandstanding Hu style has so much more to say for it than perhaps heretofore acknowledged.
         But you can always honk if you don't agree.

Columnist Tom Plate is a U.S. journalist, author of the ‘Giants of Asia’ series, and Loyola Marymount University’s Distinguished Scholar of Asian and Pacific Studies. This column first appeared on the op-ed page of the South China Morning Post of Hong King Tuesday 7 June 2016



March 30, 2016


         They say some things have to be seen to be believed, which is probably why the sight of a jaunty Mark Zuckerberg social-networking through Tiananmen Square on a bicycle (of all things) was almost unbelievable -- unless you were there. Am I saying that the chairman, chief executive, and co-founder of Facebook rather made a fool of himself?  Well, yes, I am. But in one way or the other, at one time or the other – whether peddling a bicycle or bloviating on a mainland lecture tour (me) – we all have made fools of ourselves about China. In this regard the multi-billionaire Harvard dropout loses no more face than any of us, myself surely included.
         China is hard to get right. Once the anti-social network of violence associated with Islamist extremism is contained - and it will be (in part because of the emerging dynamics of the larger peaceful Muslim world) - China will re-emerge as the West’s prime quandary.  
         There is a fundamental reason for this that can be illuminated by the Hypothesis of the Twin Earth. Use your imagination, as the late Harvard philosopher Hilary Putnam urged his students, to explain that reality is not just in the mind, and envision two planets existing at the same time that are virtually identical – person by person, tree by tree, barking dog by dog, annoying child by annoying child - except for one thing: their water. 
         Now this is key: On Planet Earth, water is exactly as we earthlings know it: H2O. But on Planet Twin, while it would look to Planet Earth-ers just like H2O, its chemistry is different – let me dub it Shui Too Oh-Oh. So if a Planet Earth person were to visit with Planet Twin, they might understand each other well enough, until they came to the subject of water: For then they would be talking about two different things; for them, their water is different. Such confusion now roils the politics of the South China Sea.
         This metaphor helps fathom the depths of the current political storm over the islands, islets, and semi-manufactured sand landing strips from Planet Twin, which sees the world one way; whereas Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam, on Planet Earth, see the water in another way. The reality divide has become fearsome. Chinese fishing vessels swarm the waters as if they own it; smaller nations push back in anger. Boats are bumping, crew are jumping, politicians’ fists are pumping, U.S. warships are intruding and over-flying … so who’s losing or has lost their mind?
         To the West, it’s the People’s Republic of China. It seems that in the span of a handful of years the China policy ‘brand’ has gone from ‘peaceful rising’ (acclaimed as sensible) to – well - ‘in your face’ (viewed as confrontational). But the Chinese view is that the waters of the South China Sea are not just H20, as the West would have it, but Shui Too Oh-Oh: “The South China Sea Islands and their surrounding waters were first discovered, named, and used by the early Chinese, as well as administered by successive governments, and have been considered inherent national territory and waters since ancient times, as is attested in numerous historical records, local gazetteers, and maps…. The Nansha (Spratly) Islands, Shisha (Paracel) Islands, Chungsha (Macclesfield Bank) Islands, and Tungsha (Pratas) Islands (together known as the South China Sea Islands) were first discovered, named, and used by the ancient Chinese, and incorporated into national territory and administered by imperial Chinese governments…. Any claim to sovereignty over, or occupation of, these areas by other countries is illegal, irrespective of the reasons put forward or methods used …”
           That seems rather in-your-face coming from the Communist People’s Republic of China, don’t you think?
           But hold on a minute: This alternative definition comes not from Beijing but Taipei. In fact it is the official position of the government of Taiwan, known to itself but not recognized by many others as the Republic of China; and it is virtually the same as the mainland’s. Thus the fierce South China Sea bifurcation turns out not as if Communist versus the West, but as Chinese versus the rest. What we have then is not a new cold war (Beijing replacing Moscow), but a history-based resurrection of claims and counterclaims pressing onto the present.
           Planet Shui Too Oh-Oh views parts of its chemistry as critically different from that of the West because they bubble up from a different place. For the hundred years prior to the ending of the war against Japan, the Chinese felt oppressed, their huge wartime contribution against fascism underappreciated, and their postwar status as a major country patronized. A relatively new book, not circulated in the West, offers this consensus view on China’s perspective: “From 1842, when the Treaty of Nanjing was forced on China by the British imperialists, to the War of Resistance against Japanese Aggression, Western Powers imposed upon China up to 1,000 unequal treaties by means of force and fraud…. China had become a semi-colonial country.” The volume – ‘China is the World Anti-Fascist War’ – was skillfully put together by Peng Xunhou, a professor at the Academy of Military Science of the People's Liberation Army.
          The glaring gap in perceptions won't be smoothed over by bike rides by billionaires or by legalistic decisions of a UN court. Again (to lean on our metaphor), where the West sees seawater, the Chinese see nasty currents of a tortured past.  As the late Professor Putnam laconically put it: “Cut the pie any way you like, ‘meanings’ just ain't in the head!” This is the lesson of the Twin Earth metaphor. The South China sea ain’t just water. (This column appeared first in the South China Morning Post on 29 March 2016)

Professor Tom Plate is the Distinguished Scholar of Asian and Pacific Studies at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles and the author of ‘In the Middle of China’s Future,’ among other books on Asia.

March 2, 2016


From the South China Morning Post, 1 Mrch 2016 -
       You don’t have to be a saint to be a great and effective leader, but you do have to be audacious. So when an audacious leader comes along that a good many admirers suspect to be a saint, you probably have got something special in front of you. May we presume this, for the moment at least, of Francis?
       The restless Pope: After the papal visit to Mexico, about which presidential candidate Donald Trump (audacious, but no saint) had something negative to say, Vatican sources floated the thought that perhaps Francis might soon visit China.
       In his observations about a country with more than 21% of the globe’s population (but only 12 mainland million are Catholic), the pope will emphasize the positive: “For me, China has always been a reference point of greatness. A great country. But more than a country, a great culture, with an inexhaustible wisdom.”
       Yet, for noodle-brain elements here in the States, Francis’s diplomatic charm offensive may come across as classic kowtowing –­ an unseemly, un-audacious genuflection to the rising power of politically-Communist China. But effective diplomacy, especially when in public light, usually requires a premeditated emphasis on the positive (the negative comes later, behind closed doors). What's more, a posture of kowtowing can be potent when the target of the ‘kow’ is known to be susceptible to the ‘tow’ – as throughout the history of China.
       So the Pope’s kowtow diplomacy toward the PRC is smart stuff. What he wants is to be able to improve the condition of his Catholics in their spiritual development; so he not only dreams of a semi-normal relationship between the Vatican and Beijing, he also envisions his Church and the Chinese state working in polite respectful parallel on the appointment of mainland Bishops.  Such accords would hardly undermine Beijing’s national security and would certainly boast China’s global image.
        Diplomacy takes patience; you could come up short this year but come out long the year after. “Dialogue does not mean that we end up with a compromise, half the cake for you and the other half for me,” the pope has adroitly explained. “Dialogue means: Look, we have got to this point, I may or may not agree, but let us walk together; this is what it means to build. And the cake stays whole, walking together.”  If China’s President Xi Jinping and the Pontiff are able to crack the Catholic mainland problem, they will take the cake – and maybe a joint Nobel Peace Prize as well.
         Far from all international issues are cakewalks, of course. The South China Sea continues to boil and bubble like a perfect storm, where almost all boats are taking on trouble. China has moved too quickly to reclaim old littoral territory and manufacture new ones, scaring the daylights out of lesser area powers. Even Communist Vietnam is now playing both sides of the diplomatic street – ‘kowtow’-ing to Washington! The South China Sea policy of the U.S. is little better. Its knee-jerk pushback against China’s reclamation campaign might make sense were we still in the last century when America ruled the world and China was still asleep.
          But that was then, and this is now.  Long-time Asia-watcher and global economist Kenneth Courtis, chairman of Starfort Investment Holdings and managing partner of Courtis Global & Associates, is coruscating: “We note from history that a rising power, to be integrated into the system, changes perforce the balance of power ex-ante.  However, the status quo powers seldom, if ever accept such change willingly ... virtually always to their regret later.  This is precisely what is occurring today.”
        America will fall on its face over its ‘pivot’ to Asia, if it is based on the premise that China must rise no more and must be made to lose face. With the clarity of great scholarship, Professor Graham Allison and Harvard’s Belfer Center research team have laid down the markers of catastrophe for status quo powers that blindly oppose rather than cleverly adjust to rising powers. 
        And why pick on China? Americans might recall from its Asian experience last century that it was not China that launched a surprise attack on America; but it was China that worked as our ally in the second global war. The U.S. has had a serious – and disastrous - military problem with Communist China only during the Korean War, when UN/US forces brainlessly pushed toward the Chinese border.  That triggered a massive ground counterattack from insecure Beijing, easily spooked when barbarian foreign forces are at its gate.
         The overly advertised U.S. pushback in the South China Sea is less than ship-shape and might even re-activate China’s insecurities. Flaunting our naval capabilities in East Asian waters (and inviting the likes of CNN along to show all the world) is to shove the ghost of General Douglas MacArthur into China’s face.  One hopes our well-educated Pacific commanders will reflect on history and curb their confrontational enthusiasm.
         Not all the world’s geopolitical fish worth frying bob within the dark depths of the South China Sea. Last week at the United Nations, China stood with the U.S. and others on the Security Council to pile yet more sanctions on erstwhile ally North Korea for its unwelcome nuclear weapon testing. Sino-U.S. cooperation of this kind could prove the wave of the future if both sides avoid assuming they can continue to live in the past.  China knows it does not want to return to a condition of poverty. And the U.S., which sometimes doesn’t seem to know what it wants, might wish to formulate policy around this pithy, pointed remark from the Pope: “… [China is] a great culture, with an inexhaustible wisdom.”  With an attitude like that, Francis will get some good things done with Beijing, while the U.S., with all its military might, splashes around pointlessly in the South China Sea.

Columnist Tom Plate, Loyola Marymount University's Distinguished Scholar of Asian and Pacific Studies, is author of the 'Giants of Asia' series.




February 2, 2016


Hong Kong (from the South China Morning Post)  -  
            There are more than a few financial figures in PRC circles that no longer trust Western financial advice (or most advisers) any more than they have to. There is a rich, as it were, history, behind the mistrust. And in this, Mr George Soros, no less, has a role. Here is the story.
            We start our narrative with the Asian Financial Crisis of the late 1990s.  For years China had been relentlessly advised by Treasury experts in the Clinton administration, and by other prominent experts in the West, to stop babying its coddled currency and let it go outdoors onto the international markets to play fair and square with other big-time currencies. For decades this has been the constant whining pitch of the geek chorus in the West.
            In fact, the argument has merit if China is to secure its place in the competitive world marketplace, of which central cosmopolitan idea Zhu Ronghi, the great former premier, was China’s world champion. In fact, years later, Beijing itself moved in exactly that direction, in part to satisfy IMF that its currency would be cleanly convertible and so globally market-worthy. But two decades ago, China was not ready for the big bad sandbox, felt both crowded and rushed by the West, and so held back.
            Surprise: Suddenly a vile regional currency crisis swept across Asia from Bangkok to Seoul to Hong Kong. Western speculators, allegedly including George Soros (in 1992 he hit his billionaire jackpot with a nervy mega-plunge against the sodden British pound), dumped bundles of cash on the bet that weak Asian currencies would lose value, and pocketed fortunes via massive “shorting” campaigns that in effect ground down Asian currencies even more.
           China, reminbi-exposure caution then working to great benefit, escaped all that pain – and to that I say thank goodness. So did our more globally sensitive Western souls who were unnerved by the global turbulence, by the frailty of the fraying ‘international economic architecture’ - and by the heartless display of sheer amoral speculative greed at the expense of the Asian people. After all, everyone knew that massive currency speculation can rock even relatively well-managed small-and-medium size economies - just as easily as a tsunami can overwhelming the most competently installed roofing over a house.  The mega-investor turned philanthropist George Soros, who in 1992 ‘shorted’ the sinking British pound into a fortune, knew well of what he spoke when he depicted predatory financial speculators as the destructive “Al Qaeda” (his words) of the financial world.
            Now for a quick side-note: If you claim that ‘Al Qaeda’ short-attacking, derivatives-spinning and hedge-funding more or less belong in the same foul and corrupt financial fruit salad, you might be accused of committing a category mistake. Surely such a broad definition is forgivable given the delicate, easily fractured interconnectedness of the global financial architecture. But caution and respect are in short supply where greed is abundant. And so sure enough, in 2008 -only a decade after the near-death experience of the Asian Financial Crisis - the U.S. economy itself almost collapses into depression. The reason: a new financial ‘Al Qaeda’ investment house of cards known as the ‘subprime’ credit-default crisis. Need a quick primer on ‘subprime’ but were afraid to ask?  See the Hollywood film The Big Short, inspired by the book of the same name. Your columnist is serious. Do yourself a favor – don't miss pop star Selena Gomez explaining CDOs. Priceless.
              With ground shaking from the U.S. financial quake, Beijing then put into rush status long-planned, Pharaoh-like public-sector works infrastructure investments to push the domestic economy forward and provide as many jobs as possible. While this bold 2009 move ran the risk of inserting bubbles into the Chinese economy that down the road might inevitably lose their pop, some Western financial figures applauded the ‘flash-flood stimulus.’ One was repentant Soros himself, who accepted that the 2008 “Bush Bubble” was nothing less than an economic existential threat, and told the Chinese their stimulus response was spot-on.
             A Beijing shaken by the U.S. housing collapse greatly appreciated that support. But that was then, and this is now – so guess what? The other day Beijing unloaded on speculators who might have thoughts of wanting to “to bet on the ‘ultimate failure’ of the suddenly rocky Chinese economy, “ in the words of Xinhua, the giant Chinese news agency, which added: “Reckless speculations and vicious shorting will face higher trading costs and possibly severe legal consequences.” 
            Where did that outburst come from? It turns out that at the recent annual retreat in Davos, one famed Western figure airing the view that China is “doomed to a crash” was Mr Soros himself. While the old ‘shorting’ master is no longer active (and surely Xinhua must know this) in some eyes he remains the international icon (for all his commendable philanthropy) of sadistic currency and equity profiteering. Chimed in People’s Daily: “A Soros’ war on the renminbi and the Hong Kong dollar cannot possible succeed – about this there can be do doubt.”
           These warnings are really directed generically rather than individually - at the global class of fast-buck investment jackals that care for no one’s welfare other than their own. It’s not hard to believe in the potential sting of the Xinhua threat. It’s also not hard to believe that Chinese officials won’t move to re-shelter its currency.  Even some Western authorities won't blame them for that.  They know how predatory their own can be. Sometimes it is only common sense to get the heck out of the sandbox when the bullies in them are trying to pull off their shorts.

Columnist Tom Plate, the Distinguished Scholar of Asian and Pacific Studies at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, is working on a book on President Xi Jinping.


January 27, 2016


 My biggest worry about China these days is not the mayhem of the markets and the edgy neuroticism of the mainland economy. The many reports of the world media have been full of telling, worrying detail. But the fact is that a huge, expanding, multifaceted economy such as China’s is not going to unfold a predictably and logically as a blooming baby rose. It will jerk, this way and that, like a neurotic octopus with more legs than it really requires and a central control system that somehow cannot keep track of them all.
        China has plenty of economists as brilliant as any in the West. They will figure it all out, in time, if only the political masters give them enough time and relentlessly back them up. Bill Clinton’s economy in the second half of the 1990s was so amazing in part because the former president, while otherwise no saint, was intellectually secure enough to let the even smarter people – Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin, Lawrence Summers and so on - do their thing.
        At the end of the day, politics generally will trump (oops…sorry) economics. The journalists will look to find the devil hiding behind some seemingly minor detail, and so it is the devilish (if still largely un-detailed) and definitely weird story out of Hong Long of the Causeway Bay bookstore and its missing team of five, including the owner, the rattles one’s cage more than roiling markets.
        Indeed, for those of us rooting hard for a peaceful China to find its secure place on the world stage, the Case of the Shuttered Bookstore unnerves. Balance and perspective must be maintained, of course, until all the facts are out. 
        From China’s perspective, one country, two systems cannot work if HK evolves into a a base on the southern flank to subvert China and support covert Mainland opposition.  President Xi Jinping's enemies on the mainland (growing in number and intensity with every corruption crackdown) may be using HK to spread malicious rumors about him in order to weaken or even destroy him.  Why would not Mainland security people want to know who are behind this?  Xi travels with an unusually large security detail, as pointed out in the previous column. Allow a full reiteration of Article 23 of the Hong Kong Basic Law: The Hong Kong Special Administrative Region shall enact laws on its own to prohibit any act of treason, secession, sedition, subversion against the Central People's Government, or theft of state secrets, to prohibit foreign political organizations or bodies from conducting political activities in the Region, and to prohibit political organizations or bodies of the Region from establishing ties with foreign political organizations or bodies.” Hong Kong has not done this yet. 
        If the allegedly subversive bookstore gang was spirited or somehow just lured to the Mainland by methods nefarious, as many on suspicious Hong Kong suspect, then this is of course a violation of the spirit, if not the law, of the doctrine of ‘one country, two systems’. Although perhaps not to be elevated to the same philosophical level as the Magna Carta, the doctrine of how big China can related to little HK has a lot going for it, and for sheer ingenuity is underestimated.  It is true that the late Deng Xiaoping did not actually invent the 1C2S notion of one country-two systems to depict the method by which China wished to embrace Hong Kong and Taiwan. But it is equally true that the overall mastermind of China’s post-Mao rise from the dead was surely its leading apostle, and represents one of his signal legacies.
         Until now, it seemed to me unthinkable that the national government centered in Beijing would regard it as anything other than canonical.
         I do not think this was the ‘bad’ Xi at work behind the scenes. My fervent hope is that it was a low-level, Mission Ridiculous, a Watergate-style operation designed to ingratiate over-reaching security operatives with the Big Boss. Apparently, the bookstore’s bookshelves stocked a handful of tabloidian tomes detailing Clintonesque-type flings with floosies (Memo to Xi: People are very forgiving about human vulnerability; just ask Bill Clinton).
        At this writing the bad books boys are probably still somewhere on the Mainland. Technically, no law has been broken based on the very facts that exist.  But Beijing Central needs to clean this up, make an example of the Mission Ridiculous team, and focus on the really important issue of making one-country, two systems a shining example of smart 21st century international politics. Beijing cannot behave as a beast, especially if it expects smooth sailing in Hong Kong and a Mainland docking, some day, by Taiwan.
       The world notes that Taiwan’s pro-independence political party just won a smashing victory and has regained the presidency (with its first female president). This is not good for the unification timetable unless the PRC plans an invasion.  One country/two systems will eventually lead to one country if the Deng Doctrine is not all but worshipped. If it is not, one country will be achievable only by force. And exercising that option would set back China more than an infinite number of market corrections.

January 14, 2016


TOM PLATE WRITES IN THE SOUTH CHINA MORNING POST - Watch this man carefully. For at least until Nov. 8, when who follows Barack Obama will be revealed, 2016’s most fascinating leader-figure will be Xi Jinping.

Although ensconced as president three years ago (with all grandiose title trimmings attached), and immediately outward-bound as China’s glove-trotting salesman-in-chief - opening doors, closing deals, scaring the West witless - this Beijing-born son of a Chinese icon remains a totally enigmatic figure. In the U.S. particularly, the avuncular face of China has seemed frustratingly hard to read.

Even in America’s best-informed circles, there is little consensus as to who Xi is. To optimists, especially hopeful economists, he is the keeper of the common-sense flame of Deng Xiaoping, the genius leader who undoubtedly saved Communism politically by all but abandoning it economically. As Harvard professor Ezra F. Vogel put it in his masterpiece Deng Xiaoping: “Deng guided the transformation of China into a country scarcely recognizable from the one he had inherited in 1978.”  

On this reading, the 62-year-old Xi remains the committed Beijing-based gang Deng-er. But to pessimists, Xi seems more the post-modern Mao man, grumpily chafing over the sins of materialism (now such the topic in the halls of the Central Party School, the ideological-education wing of the Communist Party, of which Xi is the general secretary) and the breakdown of Party discipline. In some U.S. circles, he is seen as using the current anti-corruption campaign to gin up some kind of loyal Chinese Tea Party. The fear is not only that this true-red Communist will concoct a cultural devolution and trigger a back-to-basics Chinese dynasty; but also push East Asia into a tributary-traditional, Beijing-reliant geopolitical system. 

Respected Columbia University Prof. Andrew Nathan offers pessimism: “I fear that Xi is creating great danger for China. By undercutting the institutionalized system that Deng built, he hangs the survival of the regime on his ability to bear an enormous workload, make the right decisions, and not make big mistakes. He is trying to bottle up a growing diversity of social and intellectual forces that are bound to grow stronger. He may be breaking down, rather than building up, the consensus within the political leadership and among economic and intellectual elites over China’s path of development….  As he departs from Deng Xiaoping’s path, he risks undermining the regime’s adaptability and resilience.”

Such polar-opposite portraits lack key nuance, especially in dealing with one of the most complex systems in political history. As an eminent source of mine sees it: “It is true that Xi has concentrated power to an extent not seen in a long time. But at the core is a life-and-death struggle to re-establish the moral authority of the Communist Party.  The reasons for his doing it are not as your Columbia professor thinks but much deeper.”
Xi will always try to take the long view about his China, as if the main monk of a new, emerging Chinese Confucianism. A few months ago he wrote, remarkably: ““Future China will be under a group of people with the right view, right mindfulness and positive energy. The real crisis is not of economic or financial, but it is the crisis of morality and spirituality. The more blessed one is, the more energy one has. Be friends with the wise ones, move with those who are kind. Always have the people in mind with boundless great love.” (Translation)

Such warm daintiness words might well strike the Western eye as okay for a spiritual pope but not a secular one -- not to mention an avowed Communist atheist whose government demonstrably does not love the irreverent blogger or treacherous tweeter, much less the upstart Uighur. Yet Xi’s massive anti-corruption campaign, headed by the very capable Wang Qishan, at times does have the feeling of a spiritual cleansing (or am I wrong - just a commonplace political purge?).

Xi became China’s maximum leader through not so much Party connection as policy competence. Highly regarded, he was put in overall charge of 2008 Olympics preparations, and back in the mid-nineties had been Beijing’s man hovering over the re-acquisition of Hong Kong to ensure it would not be bungled. To his Party partisans, he seemed the always-reliable deliveryman. One man very impressed by Xi was the late Singapore master Lee Kuan Yew: “I would put him in the Nelson Mandela class of persons. A person with enormous emotional stability who does not allow his personal misfortunes or sufferings affect his judgment.”

At the same time, Xi’s climb to the top has made enemies of immense intensity (a nervous-making story all but hidden from the mainland and world media), with attendant threats that have ballooned the size of his security contingent. In addition to the anti-corruption drive, Xi has pushed for a restructuring of the vast PLA military to nail down Party control over a sector that sometimes careered toward the semi-sovereign. This revamp is a heavy lift.
Xi certainly deserves no Nobel Peace Prize simply for sweet-thoughts in Confucian-like prose (while rather less poetically beefing up regional ocean reefs). But there is one area of achievement that does merit a look from the Norwegian Nobel Committee: he and Taiwan’s leader Ma Jung-yeou as joint candidates for the 2016 Nobel Peace Prize for their cross-strait de-tensioning. Xi may be no saint, but Ma is no Communist: In Singapore recently this political odd couple put on a most welcome public display of diplomacy in the first such cross-strait meeting at that high a level since 1947. Absurd to propose Xi and Ma for the Nobel, you say? I might agree if someone can just explain why it’s any more absurd than the 2009 Nobel Peace award to Obama … just nine months after he took office. That was ridiculous. The Xi-Ma idea is not and has some charm.


December 22, 2015


TOM PLATE (courtesy of the South China Morning Post)

As the influential sociologist and philosopher Jurgen Habermas was right to lecture us: Conversations continuously conducted with rationality and thoughtfulness can ferment into a kind of symphonic repertoire for the civilized polity. You learn so little by talking: Only the wickedly witty Oscar Wilde could get away with claiming to prefer talking to himself on the ground that it saves time and prevents arguments! That’s perhaps an option for the poet or the playwright but not for the journalist; or for nations in their interrelations. We need to talk the talk before we walk the walk. To quote Habermas: “Society is dependent upon a criticism of its own tradition.” This is now as true for our global society as for any nation state; and it is definitely truer than ever of the Sino-U.S. relationship.

Listening to others – nations as well as people- requires respect. Without it, exchanges sour into shouting matches as if between the deliberately and defiantly deaf. Respect requires humility about one’s own views and modesty about the universal applicability of one’s own experiences. I know I’ve said this before - but there are always reasons for saying it again: America will never understand China if it talks and listens only to itself.

Sure, we have track-two institutions (smart nonprofits, heady think-tanks) trying their best to architect a two-way, 24-hour fast-train to Beijing. But as of now, overall, the project is not working well enough. Just one quick example: a former prime minister from Asia came to Los Angeles for a chat after an appointment-filled Washington visit. Basically depressed, he told me the American Establishment will never understand the dynamics behind China’s rise as long as it’s viewing things though its usual military and adversarial periscopes.  But did you not explain all this to them? “They hear but … [he paused] … they do not listen.”

Arrogance can be a substantial bar to a healthy grip on reality. Listening to others is one time-honored method of maintaining a measure of balance between the ears – a way of getting out of one’s own head, which, as we all know, is sometimes a very strange and isolated place. All this by way of reiterating the obvious about China: if you want to understand it, you have to listen to it. But (and here is the ‘but’, and it is a very big but) – in all fairness to us in the US, it is hard to listen and learn when the other side all too often prefers not to talk.

And, yes, I’m getting a bit steamy now on this point: When Chinese officials do (rarely) decide to say something, it is usually said so long after the fact that you feel you have heard it before. China needs to open up, at the highest levels, or – I believe - it may lose out in the global civic-conversation race. Let me explain why we should worry. Looking back on my own occasional in-depth conversations with iconic PRC officials makes the case – to me at least - that this Chinese government ought to be doing a lot more with its VIPs. I recall one session with Vice Premier Qian Qichen, in the nineties China’s well-respected foreign minister. In a Diaoyutai guest cabin in Beijing he laid out the core elements of Chinese internationalist thinking that served as invaluable markers for me for years. Then, in a Shanghai foreign-ministry office, China’s top cardinal on cross-strait relations Wang Daohan, his lined face resembling some attic map of Manchuria, offered up a riveting hour and a half of emotional as well as intellectual context that had to be felt as well as heard. He took the listener from the depths of the Cultural Revolution to the heights of – well – the skyscraping of Shanghai.

Canned press conferences do not measure up to real deals like these, especially when officials have enough self-confidence rope to let themselves go a little bit. But landing such sessions is rare; worse yet, this situation doesn't seem to improving under the Xi Jinping government. So when China’s top officials complain about being misunderstood, and while their complaint may well be valid, an available remedy seems not to occur to them: They should sit down and take their chances and open up, at least a little. Heck, this is the globalized information age, right? – not the Silk Road epoch of a thousand ox-carts?

Here’s another illustration: Not long ago the much-admired East West Center of Honolulu, in alliance with the mainland’s venerable All-China Journalists Association, brought to my university a VIP delegation of more than a dozen Chinese journalists or media executives. Represented institutions included China Central TV, China Radio International, Chongqing Radio and Television Group, Hubei Radio and TV, People’s Daily, Sichuan Daily Group, United Media Group of Shanghai, Worker’s Daily, Xinhua News Agency and other mainland media mega-stars.

The topic of our seminar-chat was “how China’s rise is impacting its relation with regional neighbors; and China’s future as a world power.” It was a fascinating session that ended with the usual exchange of gifts. Mine were copies of the Chinese edition of my ‘Conversations with Lee Kuan Yew’. One journalist, noting that the book was part of the ‘Giants of Asia’ series, asked why no mainland officials have yet been included: Is China not important - and is Singapore not so very tiny?

I answered this way, as politely as possible: whereas Singapore and other governments reply to media requests for VIP interviews, yours ignores them. The journos shook their heads in dismay, for they knew I was right.  I do understand the longstanding official Chinese mentality on media relations, but I will stick to my guns: This is no good for China.

Prof. Tom Plate, Loyola Marymount University's Distinguished Scholar of Asian and Pacific Studies in Los Angeles, is a columnist for the South China Morning Post and the author of the 'Giants of Asia' book series.