Sunday, November 6, 2011

Tibet's Rivers and China: Dammed If They Do, Damned If They Don't

There's power in these waters

        Within China, it is second only to the Yellow River in hydropower-generating potential. But, in an already-polluted country where 900MW of coal-fired power generating capacity comes online weekly, the Yarlung Zangbo has remained unexploited, until recently.[1] The moment when construction began on the first dam across the river – at Zangmu in Tibet's Gyaca County – is uncertain. What is clear is that Chinese diplomats frequently denied the country’s plans for the Yarlung Zangbo before April 2010, when Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi confided in his Indian counterpart that construction of hydropower infrastructure on the river was indeed underway. Yang tried to mollify the Indian foreign minister by explaining that China’s plans were limited in nature and would have little impact on the flow of the river. Nevertheless, in the following months, revelations of grand dam-building aspirations, including the proposed construction of a 38GW dam on the Great Bend near Motuo, would come to light. These unconfirmed revelations were followed by a November 2010 article in the People's Daily that proudly proclaimed the completion of the first stage of damming for the 510MW Zangmu plant.
China’s halting official revelations, along with the leakage of additional details through lower-key sources, demonstrate the sensitivity of the issue of hydropower development on the Yarlung Zangbo and other Tibetan rivers. India and Bangladesh both have plans to develop the waters of the Yarlung Zangbo, which becomes the Brahmaputra after it turns the Great Bend en route for the Indian Ocean. Both states worry that Chinese dam construction would affect the river’s flow. Meanwhile, activists ranging from Tibetans, who have long considered the Yarlung Zangbo to be a sacred waterway and are hesitant to send its electric power to the Han-dominated central government, to environmentalists, who worry about a loss of biodiversity in Tibet, have raised calls of alarm. All detractors are destined to be disappointed by China's hydropower push. For, whether one gazes at Tibet through the eyes of the central government or through those of the Chinese power industry, the incentives for Himalayan dam construction, whether on the Yarlung Zangbo or any other Tibetan river, actually do seem to outweigh the sky-high costs. 
A few quick facts serve to underline the government’s interest in developing Tibetan hydropower resources. The most important of these facts is China’s persistent electricity shortage. According to the China Electricity Council, the country’s power plants supplied 4.03 trillion kWh of electricity in 2010, falling just short of national consumption of 4.2 trillion kWh. Maintaining this slightly uneven balance has been difficult in an economy growing at 10 percent per year. In 2010 alone, China added 91.24GW of generating capacity. Coal-fired thermal plants make up most of that new capacity, contributing to an output of 7,706.83 million metric tons of CO2 in 2009, up 13 percent from 2008. Meanwhile, operators of Chinese coal-fired plants, protesting a government-imposed electricity price ceiling that cost them 18.1 billion yuan in the first seven months of 2011 due to rising world coal prices, are restricting output against the backdrop of the worst drought to hit the country in half a century. The water shortage has reduced existing hydroelectric generation. The example of the Three Gorges Dam is instructive. As of May 2011, the water level in the reservoir was 10 feet below the optimal power generating level due to the release of water to support the ailing crops of farmers downstream. As a result, state media reported that mandatory power cuts would be effectuated at 24,000 industrial firms in Shanghai.
China’s top leaders have made no secret that they see economic growth as the key to ensuring domestic stability – and the longevity of the Communist Party’s rule. For the Party, electricity shortages are not merely an inconvenience. They are an existential crisis, the resolution of which seems ever more inextricably tied to highly polluting and increasingly pricey coal. Meanwhile, a mere 0.6 percent of Tibet’s hydropower resources have been developed – by far the lowest percentage for any Chinese-administered region. Therefore, it is not surprising that the development of hydroelectric power, especially that in West China, is a priority of the 12th Five-Year Plan. If the plan’s recommendations are fully implemented, by 2015, China will have developed 71 percent of its available hydropower resources – 100 percent in the East and Center, and 54 percent in the West. Specifically, Chinese experts are anticipating that Qinghai and Tibet will be major sites for future construction.
Even without this high-level encouragement, plenty of motivation would exist for developing Tibet’s hydropower resources due to recent Chinese power industry reforms. According to China geography, energy and water specialist Darrin Magee, China’s State Council began reforming the country’s power industry in the mid-1990s in order to separate generation from distribution and to realign priorities in terms of profit and the market. This “corporatization” of the power industry occurred in several steps. First, the Ministry of Electric Power was reorganized into the State Power Corporation of China. The SPCC was later broken into six power-generation stock companies with the government owning a controlling share in each. Each company was responsible for generation in a different region, except for the sixth, which would focus on the Three Gorges Dam. These holding companies proceeded to create many subsidiaries with the responsibility of project development. Today, these subsidiaries, many of which raise capital through public listings, compete against each other to exploit power resources, often as components of public-private conglomerates. This atmosphere of competition, combined with indirect state support, has an accelerating effect on power resource development.[2]
If Tibet has been spared extensive dam construction until recently, it is because these enterprises have been prevented from proceeding. According to Zhang Boting, Deputy Secretary-General of the Chinese Society for Hydroelectric Engineering, dam builders had previously invested in projects under the 11th Five-Year Plan, but, from 2007 onward, were refused project approval by State Council departments responsible for investment due to complaints by environmentalists and concerns over population displacement. Therefore, many of the hydroelectric projects that are slated for development under the 12th Five-Year Plan will simply be implementations of original plans.[3] Nevertheless, it is clear that, under the latest Five-Year Plan, the incentives of the central government and of the Chinese power industry overlap, resulting in a strong impetus for development of unexploited hydropower resources. The construction of additional dams in Tibet seems inevitable.
Of course, in the interest of reducing criticism, the government has been careful to adopt a narrative that presents Tibetan hydropower exploitation as a local development solution. The People’s Daily article that confirmed the damming of the Yarlung Zangbo at Zangmu stated that the 510 MW project would greatly alleviate power shortages in central Tibet with an annual electricity output of 2.5 billion kWh. Tibet, which is not yet connected to the national power grid, currently generates its own power. Locally, 2 billion kWh were consumed in 2010. Therefore, when it reaches full capacity in 2014, the Zangmu Dam alone will double Tibet’s potential electricity supply and, despite the current existence of power shortages in winter months, will probably satisfy demand with room to spare. Yet this narrative of providing power for Tibetan development is currently shared by another major power project. Construction of the Qinghai-Tibet Power Grid Interconnection Project began in July 2010 and, by May 2011, it was 60 percent complete. The project is designed to connect the Tibetan power grid with the national power grid via a high-altitude DC transmission line from Golmud to Lhasa. Incidentally, the project is expected to transmit 4 billion kWh of electricity to Tibet between 2013 and 2015. Since both projects are sufficient to entirely cover Tibet’s current annual consumption on top of the region’s existing generating capacity, it is clear that regional development is not the only goal of dam construction.
The Three Gorges Dam: China's Problem Child?
Activists’ fears that Tibet would be turned into ground-zero for hydropower extraction were heightened by a May 2010 article by journalist Jonathan Watts (previously linked) in The Guardian. Watts refers to comments by Tashi Tsering, a Tibetan scholar of environmental policy at the University of British Columbia, who claims that over 28 dams on the Yarlung Zangbo are planned, completed or under discussion. The most notable of these projects would be a dam on the Great Bend at Motuo with a total generating capacity of 38GW – twice the capacity of the Three Gorges Dam. Notably, the article contains a link to a map of these projects published by Hydro China, a government enterprise that undertakes dam construction. Due to the State Council’s recent acknowledgement of technical, environmental and other problems at the Three Gorges Dam, activists have good reasons to be concerned about the impact of such an ambitious dam-building regime on the local culture and ecosystem. Likewise, the Indian media can be forgiven for questioning the assertions of Chinese diplomats that Chinese dams will not affect the flow of the river, especially when reports of the Zangmu Dam’s construction specifications reveal a larger potential impact on the watercourse than the Chinese government is admitting. Unless China provides more concrete reassurances to downstream states, this issue could still lead to significant regional friction.
This does not mean that China is unwilling or unable to settle on a Tibetan dam-building strategy that minimizes the impact on the local culture and environment while ensuring the provision of sufficient water resources to allow for further exploitation by India and Bangladesh. As yet, it is unclear whether Hydro China’s plan is really government policy or a pipe dream.
Certainly, China could easily find guidance on choosing appropriate dam sites and technologies. Notably, a 2003 report by the World Bank, entitled Good and Bad Dams, provides a simple methodology for choosing dam sites. The report includes recommendations based on reservoir surface area, water retention time, biomass flooded, length of the river impounded upstream or left dry downstream, the number of downriver tributaries, the likelihood of reservoir stratification, useful reservoir life, persons needing resettlement, critical habitats affected, impact on fish species and cultural property affected. Moreover, the World Bank’s assertion in a report on “India’s Water Economy” that the Himalayas contain some of the world’s “most environmentally and socially benign sites for hydropower” based on the area submerged per megawatt and the number of persons resettled per megawatt indicates that the organization does recognize avenues for sustainable Himalayan dam development.
Nevertheless, the potential for dam construction to be mismanaged by Chinese developers is huge. At the least, preliminary reports of the effects (previously linked) of the Zangmu Dam on the local area are troubling. One businessman, predicting an economic boom for the 17,000-resident Gyaca County, has already invested in a three-star hotel there. Additionally, construction of a highway to the prefectural center is slated to begin this year. A Chinese geologist claims that mining operations, themselves spurring road and rail development, will not be far behind. If all of these projections come to fruition, the impact on the local culture could be enormous. The impact on the environment could be just as large. According to Conservation International, the Himalayas contain over 10,000 plant species, 3,160 of which are endemic to the region. A further 1,827 species of mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and freshwater fishes live in the area, 150 of which can be found nowhere else.
Sichuan shares Tibet's shaky quaky plateau 
Dams on rivers such as the Yarlung Zangbo may encounter technical problems as well. Himalayan rivers are known for their very high rates of sedimentation, a factor which may help Bangladesh stay above the waves as global temperatures rise. Unfortunately, as Good and Bad Dams specifies, dams built on rivers with greater sedimentary runoff tend to have shorter reservoir lives and are, therefore, less economically viable over the dam lifetime. Finally, Chinese hydroelectric engineers will have to overcome the challenges of building dams in one of the world’s most seismically active regions. Unless future dams are properly designed, the relative frequency of magnitude 7 or greater earthquakes in the Himalayas will greatly raise the threat of catastrophic dam failure.
        Based on the projections of the 12th Five-Year Plan, these are risks that China’s leaders are apparently willing to take. After all, as Sinologist David Shambaugh explains in China’s Communist Party: Atrophy and Adaptation, Chinese leaders have learned through the experience of the collapse of other authoritarian systems that one-party rule is not necessarily indefinite. One-party governments can fall when they fail to live up to the expectations of the people they govern.[4] In a China, where economic growth serves as the foundation for legitimacy, the question of whether or not to build dams in Tibet becomes a matter of balancing the priorities of 2 million Tibetans and the interests of the Indian Subcontinent against the survival of the CCP. The costs of dam construction may indeed be sky high. On the other hand, for China’s leaders, the longevity of the Party is priceless. 

[1] Yarlung Zangbo has 54,960MW of potential installed capacity compared to 210,810 for the Jinsha/Yangtse. See: Chiang Mai University Unit for Social and Environmental Research and Green Watershed. Yunnan Hydropower Expansion: Update on China's Energy Industry Reforms and the Nu, Lancang and Jinsha Hydropower Dams. Kunming, 2004. "
For statistics on China’s new coal-fired generation, see: International Energy Outlook 2011." U.S. Energy Information Administration. EIA, 19 Sept 2011. Web. 16 Oct 2011. <>.
[2] Magee, Darrin. "Powershed Politics: Yunnan Hydropower under Great Western Development." China Quarterly. 185 (2006): 23-41.
[3] Xie, Liangbing, and Yong Chen. "Making Up for Lost Time: China's Hydropower Push."
[4] Shambaugh, David. China's Communist Party: Atrophy and Adaptation. Washington, DC: Woodrow Wilson Center Press, 2008. 5.

Monday, September 19, 2011

WHO: We are Right, and You're Not! Taiwan is a Part of China!

The serpent on the WHO flag seems oddly appropriate
Big news in! Yesterday, DPP legislator Kuan Bi-ling said that, in response to a June 14 letter that the European Parliament-Taiwan Friendship Group sent to the WHO to protest  several of the organization's recent statements that Taiwan was a province of China, the WHO has responded by emphasizing its supposed correctness. In the July 4 response letter, the WHO emphasized that, according to Resolution 25.1 of the World Health Assembly (background on the issue), "The WHO maintains that "China Taiwan" [Chinese-language literal translation of "Taiwan, China" as opposed to "Chinese Taipei"] is a part of China.... Unless the WHA resolution changes, the Secretariat will continue to respect the wording and the spirit of the resolution."

In other words, despite the fact that neither UN General Assembly Resolution 2758 nor WHA Resolution 25.1, the resolutions that handled the transfer of the China seat in the organizations from the ROC to the PRC, make any reference to Taiwan's status in relation to China, the WHO still claims that it's interpretation is the correct one. 

Although one might speculate about the motivations of WHO Director Margaret Chan, who happens to be Chinese and under whose tenure a controversial internal memo was circulated that said that Taiwan was to be treated as a province of China, this story is especially important now for another reason - namely that Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou's campaign has recently stepped up its attacks on the "Taiwan Consensus" idea of Tsai Ing-wen, claiming that only the administration's preferred "92 Consensus" (one country, different interpretations) can serve as a stable foundation for cross-strait ties.

Kuan's revelation proves that negotiations based on the "92 Consensus" have not raised Taiwan's international status. Aside from the controversial China agreements, which Taiwan arrived at through negotiations with a partner that has never officially recognized the "different interpretations" part of the "92 Consensus", this is one of the Ma administration's only supposed international diplomatic gains for Taiwan. What good is the "92 Consensus" if it can only secure Pyrrhic victories against Chinese intimidation?

It amazes me that President Ma can still advocate such a flawed model for negotiations with such a straight face. Then again, what else does he have to crow about?

Monday, September 5, 2011

Are China's Indigenous Innovation Policies Encouraging R&D Shift to India?

Original patent for Diesel Engine (copyright expired)

My ears typically perk up when I hear the term “indigenous innovation”, mainly because I find the evolution of this set of Chinese technology assimilation policies (good succinct overview from the blog of a Chinese law firm), as well as the vigorous responses to these policies by foreign enterprises and governments, fascinating.

The plan was originally announced by China's State Council in 2006 in the The Guiding Principles of Program for Mid-to-Long Term Scientific and Technological Development (2006-2020). In 2009, further announcements specified that Chinese government procurement would be tied to the degree of “indigenous innovation” that the desired products possessed. Products that were fabricated with IPR owned by a Chinese entity and not restricted by foreign institutions or individuals would be deemed indigenously innovated. Moreover, product trademarks would have to have been originally registered in China. These clarifications raised understandable anxieties among foreign enterprises, which were faced with the prospect of either transferring their design houses and key technologies to China or being shut out of competition for government orders.

Evolution of the rules of indigenous innovation have continued since 2009, as this July 22, 2011 WSJ “blog” post by Chinese legal specialist Stanley Lubman claims. Specifically, in January 2010, the Ministry of Science and Technology relaxed the definition of indigenous innovation. The Ministry specified that foreign-invested enterprises could conduct R&D elsewhere as long as the enterprises in question were registered entities in China. Alternatively, Chinese enterprises could offer "indigenous" innovation by purchasing the rights to use a technology developed elsewhere.

One year later, President Hu Jintao himself took relaxation of indigenous innovation policies a step further by announcing that such innovation would be delinked from government procurement. Clearly, the Chinese government has decided, for whatever reason, that the draconian 2009 announcement went a few steps too far.

What motivated my own response to this subject was a September 1, 2011 piece in the Wall Street Journal Asia, to which a professor of mine drew my attention. The article in question, written by Anil K. Gupta and Haiyan Wang, claims that China’s indigenous innovation program is stifling R&D within China by pushing foreign enterprises to carry out their more valuable innovation projects in India, where intellectual property rights are more respected. The Gupta and Wang article is full of interesting numbers. Here is an excerpt: 
These policy differences appear to have a significant influence on corporate behavior. Consider the top 10 U.S.-based technology giants that received the most patents from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office between 2006 and 2010: IBM, Microsoft, Intel, Hewlett-Packard, Micron, GE, Cisco, Texas Instruments, Broadcom and Honeywell.

Half of these companies appear not to be doing any significant R&D work in China. Between 2006 and 2010, the U.S. Patent Office did not award a single patent to any China-based units of five out of the 10 companies. In contrast, only one of the 10 did not receive a patent for an innovation developed in India.

India has proven more fertile territory for these companies. For the 10 tech giants taken together, India-based labs received more patents (1,119) than did China-based labs (886) during this period.

At the company level, the difference can be even more striking. For the seven out of 10 companies where Indian units received more patents than Chinese labs, the aggregate numbers were 978 vs. 164. Only a strong showing for China from two outliers, Microsoft and Intel, pulled up its aggregate filings - Chinese labs at those two companies secured 722 patents compared to 141 from Indian labs.
On the whole, the Gupta and Wang article is very interesting, but it may suffer from a few misconceptions that give the Chinese government less credit than it deserves and that downplay what may be a longer-term trend towards the favoring of India.

First of all, Gupta and Wang seem to lay the blame at the feet of the Chinese central government, when, as Lubman points out, China has already backed off on the most contentious elements of indigenous innovation. National government procurement projects are no longer required to use indigenous innovation, and the definition of that innovation is now flexible enough to allow most foreign enterprises plenty of wiggle room to avoid the transfer of key technologies and research operations to China.

In fact, national leaders may even understand the conclusion that Gupta and Wang express at the end of their article:
If it wants to become a global technology leader, China needs open doors, strong intellectual property protection, and no stacking of the deck in favor of Chinese companies—a policy mix exactly opposite to some of its current indigenous innovation measures.
As Lubman notes, the problem of linkage between procurement and indigenous innovation has been displaced to the local government level. He offers us the examples of Shanghai, Beijing and Nanjing, which, like many other local governments, have established their own procurement standards:
The Shanghai [procurement] catalogue, for example, listed only two indigenous innovation products from FIEs out of a total of 523. Of 42 products listed in the Beijing catalogue, only one came from an FIE. On Nanjing’s list, there were none.
Therefore, the matter has now become just one of the many cases where local governments pursue their own goals independently of the central government's directives.

The second, and greater, misconception of the Gupta and Wang article is its implication that correlation is causation, with the imbalance in new patent applications by US enterprises in India as opposed to China being blamed on indigenous innovation.

While China’s indigenous innovation policies are probably a contributing factor in this disparity, we should remember that the concept of indigenous innovation was rather inchoate in China between 2006 and 2009. The most disquieting elements of the policy were only in effect from February 2009 to January 2010, with delinkage of procurement from indigenous innovation happening on a national scale, if not a local one, just one year later. In other words, the Gupta and Wang piece encourages us to think that the very large disparity between India and China in the conducting of important R&D work has arisen within a two-year span. This implies almost unbelievably fast resource distribution decisions and plan implementations on the part of the enterprises in question.  

It is more likely that Gupta and Wang have tapped into a much deeper spring of discontent towards the state of Chinese IPR protection than their article implies, with India slowly and steadily gaining ground over China as a home for R&D operations over a period of many years.

Now, India’s IPR protection record is far from flawless. This Intellectual Property Rights Primer for India, published by the UK Intellectual Property Office, discusses both the good and the bad:
A major cause for concern in enforcement is bureaucratic delay, with a backlog of cases at both the civil and criminal courts. This means that cases can run for five years or more. There is a lack of transparency, particularly at the local level. Set against these problems is the balanced approach of the Indian judicial system, which comes down heavily on IPR infringers. Over the years decisions in favour of foreign companies against local infringers have demonstrated the judiciary’s impartial approach. In addition, the readiness of the Indian courts to grant interim injunctions usually means an infringement is halted pending the outcome of a case.
The fact that the Indian judicial system seems to be genuinely interested in protecting intellectual property, despite enforcement problems, has probably done much to improve the reputation of India as a home for R&D operations.

Contrast this with China, where considerable roadblocks to foreign enterprises seeking to defend their IPR exist in the court system despite the fact that laws designed to protect intellectual property exist. In this Bloomberg article Vivek Wadhwa, a Senior Research Associate at Harvard Law School, briefly discusses some of the issues foreign companies face in China in regards to patent protection:
...all patent filings are in Chinese and the interpretation as to whether a technology infringes is left to local judges who may not understand much about technology. The judges will likely side with locals rather than with foreigners. Because of language problems and the sheer volume of patent filings, there is no easy way for foreign companies entering the Chinese market to determine whether patents that cover their technologies already exist.

China has a big advantage, too: Most global patents that have been filed over the past decades are not valid in China. Patent laws did not exist there until 1985.For any U.S. or global patent to be valid in China, it must have been filed there. For any U.S. or global patent to be valid in China, it must have been filed there.
Language difficulties, nationalistic sentiments and slow acceptance of Western patent-protection norms would all contribute (and have been contributing) to problems with IPR protection in China even without the existence of indigenous innovation policies. On the contrary, in India, language and many norms are broadly shared at the policymaking level, while nationalist chest-thumping is primarily directed at Pakistan and China. Therefore, faced with a choice between basing Asian R&D operations in India or China, it makes sense that Western enterprises would favor India over time, whether or not China enforces indigenous innovation policies. The analysis by Gupta and Wang seems to lack an acknowledgement of the big picture behind the trend they present.

Therefore, while I salute Gupta, Wang, Lubman and Wadhwa for individually adding to the discourse on indigenous innovation, I would encourage them all to put their heads together in order to give us all a more comprehensive picture of the situation.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Lacking Common Sense when the Wind Blows

Tracking Map from Weather Underground
Having been roundly excoriated by Taiwan’s media for attending a wedding reception on the eve of Typhoon Morakot over two years ago, Ma Ying-jeou should have learned a bit about what is expected of a leader when disaster strikes. Yes, he should have learned… but then again, this is Ma Ying-jeou after all. 

This glibly dismissive explanation (Ma doesn’t learn because he is Ma) may be unappealing to some readers. But as the gaffes of gaffe-prone leaders pile up, one tends to stop wondering why they can't seem to keep their hands out of the fire. If he wasn't capable of learning from his Panglossian Provence comment three weeks ago, for example, why should we expect him to have learned from his Morakot experience by the eve of Typhoon Nanmadol’s landfall in southern Taiwan? 

The new gaffe to which I am referring is Ma’s decision to call a press conference on the afternoon of August 28 (TVBS article in Chinese, Taipei Times coverage in English) to roundly criticize the rejection of the “1992 Consensus” by Tsai Ying-wen, his opponent in the upcoming presidential election. The consensus, supposedly agreed to by representatives of the PRC and the ROC in 1992, claims that both governments believe that there is only one China and that both sides have their own interpretation of what that China is. Despite the fact that former KMT legislator Su Chi says he made up the term in 2000, that nobody outside of the KMT was involved in its formulation, and that no Chinese leader has ever really endorsed the “different interpretations” of the "one China, different interpretations" idea, the so-called consensus continues to be the basis of the KMTs cross-strait policymaking.

As an election tactic, Ma’s criticism of the cross-strait relations plank of Tsai’s platform makes sense. The Chinese have already firmly rejected anything but the “92 Consensus” as a basis for cross-strait relations. Therefore, Ma can legitimately claim that a "President Tsai" would not make any more headway with Beijing than he has

On the other hand, Ma’s choice of the eve of a typhoon landfall to go on the attack is really astonishing, mainly because it undermines the force of his argument by opening him to allegations of insensitivity. As DPP Spokesman Chuang Rui-hsiung responded to Ma’s press conference in a statement (see the TVBS article above):
To convene a press conference at this critical moment to talk of highly ideological matters[!] We can’t help but ask whether strong wind and rain aren’t [more important than] the 92 Consensus?
Even more astonishing is the fact that Ma apparently knew he should stay away from campaigning on this day. As the TVBS piece notes, he had already canceled his other campaign events. The press conference was a hasty afternoon affair, one that probably did not sit very well in the minds of those for whom the memory of Morakot was fresh. 

Interestingly enough, TVBS, which typically supports pan-Blue politicians, seemingly strayed into the realm of sarcasm when reporting on the press conference. Although the piece avoids direct criticism, the headline says “Responding to the 92 Consensus on a Typhoon Day! (exclamation mark included). Additionally, the article reminds us twice that it is a typhoon day, while the first paragraph says Ma “persisted” in calling a press conference despite his other event cancellations, and the last paragraph seemingly chortles, “In the afternoon he cannot resist personally rising to the line of fire. Even the arrival of the fierce Typhoon Nanmadol can’t stay his determination to defend the 92 Consensus.” I doubt that this was the type of coverage Ma was hoping for. 

Ma’s choice of this moment to attack Tsai was all the more bizarre since the typhoon in question was projected to affect mainly DPP-voting southwestern Taiwan, which, incidentally, was hit hard by Morakot. Faced with what could be a close election, the KMT has been trying to increase its support in that part of the country. This typhoon should present Ma with the perfect opportunity to demonstrate that he cares about the concerns of southern voters. If Nanmadol causes significant damage and the government mounts an effective response, he might still have that opportunity. However, thanks to Ma's press conference, if the damage is minimal, the South will be left with the image of an uncaring leader who couldn’t resist the urge to take up electioneering in their hour of need.

National leaders are valued for their ability to put the good of the country above their own needs. Yet, strangely enough, it seems that this realization has not yet sunk in for Ma.  

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Handicapped Reporting: Are Foreign Enterprises any Less Accessible than Chinese Ones?

Wheelchair-bound Confucius with His Students
I’m certainly no fan of KFC and McDonalds. Their high-fat, high-sodium menus, whether consumed by Americans or Chinese, take years off of lives as they add inches to waistlines. However, while I don't approve of their food offerings, I am not above defending the Colonel and the Golden Arches from unfair criticism.

One such unmerited attack was featured in the August 18 edition of Caijing. Although I have a great deal of respect for Caijing – a paper that has built a reputation for pushing the limits of investigative reporting within China – I question the paper’s reporting of the findings of a study by the Beijing Yineng Yixing Handicapped Research Institute in addition to the nature of the study itself. (Note: I could not find an original copy of the institute’s report online, therefore, my interpretation of that report might be slightly colored by Caijing’s reporting.)

According to the study, KFC and McDonalds, both of which are required to provide handicapped-accessible facilities under the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, are guilty of failing to respect the standards of Chinese laws for the accommodation of handicapped people. Of the 128 stores located in Beijing, over 90 percent have restrictions for the handicapped.

What sort of restrictions? Only 29 stores have ramps that allow wheelchairs to enter, while only 16 stores have ramps with platforms at the top that are roomy enough to allow a wheelchair-bound person to operate the door without backing onto the ramp. Additionally, almost half of the stores have thresholds that are over 1.9 centimeters high, making wheelchair access difficult. Furthermore, only 13 of the stores are one-story facilities. Of those that are not one-story, only 27 offer service on the ground level, and only six have elevators. These elevators either lack braille writing or they feature buttons that are too high for people in wheelchairs to reach.

Restrooms in the stores are also hard for handicapped people to use. In 80 stores, the path to the restroom is not handicapped-accessible, while the restrooms themselves have restrictions in 103 stores. The dining areas are also problematic. While most stores have tables that are high enough for wheelchairs, many of the tables to not have enough space for the knees.

These findings sound pretty damning. One might think that KFC and McDonalds are really dropping the ball in China, especially after reading Caijing’s introduction to the study at the top of the piece:

Although, in the US, the two big fast food chains must strictly follow laws requiring the provision of handicapped-accessible facilities, the environment for the handicapped that they provide to Chinese customers is a mess.
Caijing frankly tells us that the two chains treat American consumers and Chinese consumers differently – a claim that fits nicely into local stereotypes of multinationals as foreign predators seeking only profit as they exploit the Chinese masses.

This presentation is simply unfair. Anyone who is handicapped, or has had experience living or working with the handicapped, and has spent some time in China can recognize what an inhospitable environment the country as a whole presents to those with disabilities. Even Beijing, which hosted the Paralympics in 2008, is still a difficult place for the handicapped to navigate. This piece from the Washington Post, composed after the Paralympics prompted improvements to facilities in the capital, explains some of the problems that remain.

One of the main conclusions of the WaPo article is that enforcement of Chinese laws that protect the handicapped is spotty, while public awareness of the needs of handicapped people is low. Meanwhile, facilities are still lacking. For example, one blind interviewee says that sidewalks with raised tiles that have been installed throughout Beijing in order to guide the blind are of little use to him. As someone who has seen such tiles laid in irregular or broken formations in cities throughout China, I can personally understand his point.

Even if laws protecting the handicapped were strictly enforced, they might not be comprehensive. For example, the WaPo article also notes that, as of 2008, only six people and an arts association owned guide dogs in the whole country since no law allowed guide dogs to enter public places. In light of such facts, it is hard to imagine that the Beijing Yineng Yixing Handicapped Research Institute is justified in singling out two foreign-owned fast food chains for not installing braille writing in elevators, among other sins. Clearly the problem is China-wide and not limited to a few nefarious foreign enterprises.

In fairness, the institute does seem to understand the national nature of the problem. According to Caijing, the introduction of the institute’s report claims that KFC and McDonalds were chosen precisely because they are multinationals that strictly follow laws that require handicapped-accessibility in their home countries. The institute claims that these restaurants' ability to get away with different behavior in China demonstrates the failings of enforcement of Chinese laws for the handicapped. In other words, the institute doesn’t seem to place all of the blame on the shoulders of the two fast food chains.

However, I still see very little utility in singling out these two enterprises. KFC and McDonalds may be multinationals with headquarters in the US, but the store managers and staff members in China are local. Even the senior managers for China operations of the two chains are not American. KFC’s mother company, Yum brands, recruited a management team from Taiwan at the start of KFC’s entry into China in order to ensure that the company would be guided by those who were familiar with the Chinese cultural milieu. As for McDonalds, the current chief of its China operations is from Singapore. Therefore, there is no reason to believe that the corporate culture of either company’s Asian operations would be more inclined to be handicapped friendly than that of any other Asian multinational, from China, Taiwan, Singapore or elsewhere.

The Beijing Yineng Yixing Handicapped Research Institute could have made its point just as easily by analyzing a cross section of enterprises, both foreign-owned and domestic, in China. And, it would have made its point without seeming to play to local stereotypes of foreign exploitation. As for Caijing, the paper might have recognized this failing from the start and acknowledged the flaws in the institute’s methodology. China’s handicapped deserve better than biased and limited reporting of the troubles they face.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Ma Channels His Inner Pangloss

"I have seen the worst," Candide replied. "But a wise man, who since has had the misfortune to be hanged, taught me that all is marvelously well; these are but the shadows on a beautiful picture." – Voltaire, Candide

The “wise man” in question is Dr. Pangloss, the fictional philosopher who has had the greatest effect on the hero of the eponymous Candide. Armed with Pangloss’ assertion that “All is for the best in the best of all worlds”, the unfortunate young man, with his head held high, braves persecution by the Inquisition, earthquakes, slavery and more while seeing his friends touched by rape, murder, gambling, mutilation, syphilis, and, in the case of his beloved Dr. Pangloss, hanging. After all, how could any of these troubles really be bad if they happen in our world - the world our God has created for us?

Of course, the character of Pangloss is Voltaire’s creation - the ideal vessel for ridiculing the optimism of German philosopher Gottfried Leibniz (1646-1716). Leibniz believed that our universe was the best one that God could have created because God could not create a universe that is less than perfect. He IS the Supreme Being indeed!

We shouldn’t misinterpret Voltaire’s ridicule. The Frenchman is merely criticizing excessive optimism, not all optimism. However, this distinction raises an important question: Under what situations does one's optimism (or pessimism, or any other sentiment) become excessive? Since, depending on the situation, everyone has a different opinion, there is no correct answer. A good rule of thumb: When in doubt about the excessiveness of your emotional expression, err on the side of caution. If you fear that telling the man who has lost his whole family that "every dark cloud has a silver lining" might not be appreciated, just don't go there.

Politicians who owe their careers to the votes of the masses, and who therefore know how to play a crowd, should know this better than anyone. Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou should be no exception. Alas, Ma is gaffe-prone. During an August 7 visit  to Majia Township, a village reconstructed following the catastrophic destruction of Typhoon Morakot, he said:

Last night was cool. I didn’t need to cover up. I didn’t feel hot at all. I was very comfortable. It was also very peaceful. I very rarely have this experience. It was like the feeling of being in Provence.
In this election year, Ma’s detractors were quick to jump on this statement as evidence that Ma was out of touch. "How could he make light of such a bad situation?" they wondered.

Not everyone shared this concern, as a news report about the controversy surrounding his Provence statement shows. Neither of the interviewed villagers in the report seems outraged by Ma’s comment. The first doesn’t really know what Provence is like. The second gives the government mixed marks on reconstruction, claiming that the reconstruction itself is ok but wishing the government would provide work opportunities. This is not explosive stuff. Furthermore, we might forgive Ma by imagining that he was perhaps merely commenting on the natural surroundings. The controversy sounds more like a storm in a teacup rather than an indicator of Ma's poorly placed optimism.

So it is all the more mystifying that, having been slightly burned by his word choice last week, Ma chose to put his hand back in the fire on August 15 by likening another rebuilt village to Peach Blossom Spring, a pastoral utopia that is described in a fifth-century fable by the Han poet Tao Qian.

Now, I don’t think that Ma, channeling some inner Pangloss, really believes that the rebuilt villages are like Provence and Peach Blossom Spring. Despite criticism from the opposition, I am willing to give him the benefit of the doubt in this regard. I think it is more likely that Ma feels compelled to say something positive to the media about his experiences in the villages, just like any politician in his situation would, but lacks the rhetorical finesse to import the expected touch of gravity into his sound bites.

I am more troubled by what this double gaffe says about the president’s ability to learn from his mistakes. After all, what makes Pangloss (and, by extension, Candide) so ridiculous is not his initial optimism but his incapability to adjust his worldview, and the naive behavior that results from this worldview, in the face of overwhelming evidence that his optimism is excessive. If invoking picturesque Provence earns you jeers of ridicule, why switch to the utopian Peach Blossom Spring? Why not show you identify with your audience instead by adjusting your rhetoric with care?

Friday, August 12, 2011

The Incredible Disappearing Corruption Case of Lee Teng-hui

It has now been almost a month and a half since former Taiwan President Lee Teng-hui was indicted for embezzling NT$238 million from a secret National Security Bureau account during his time in office (1988-2000). In the intervening period, judges have been chosen to hear the case, but the hearing itself has not yet begun. The flurry of media attention that followed the June 30 indictment has died down. In fact, the Lee case has pretty much dropped out of the papers entirely, although this situation will undoubtedly change once the hearing begins.

The media's sudden lack of interest would not be astonishing if we didn't have another corruption indictment of a former president to compare the Lee case to. Of course, I am referring to the corruption indictment of Chen Shui-bian and the subsequent media pandemonium.

The difference is really remarkable, and easily observable for those who wish to spend a few minutes of their time checking out the archives of English and Chinese language online dailies in Taiwan. I did a quick search myself of the archives of the China Post, the Taipei Times, the United Daily, and the Liberty Times.

Before I go further, I must offer some disclaimers. My search was cursory and not at all scientific. But I will explain my "method" anyway so that those who wish to replicate this mini experiment can do so. 

Operating under the assumption that the media would be very interested in any case in the period immediately following the indictment, I specifically excluded the two weeks following Lee's indictment and Chen's formal indictment from consideration. After all, I was interested in comparing the durability of the media's coverage of the two cases, not the degree of its immediate coverage. More specifically, I searched for all news articles bearing the name “Lee Teng-hui” in a period beginning two weeks after the June 30 indictment and ending on August 11. I did the same for Chen, searching for all news articles bearing the name “Chen Shui-bian” starting two weeks after his December 12, 2008 formal indictment and ending on January 24, 2009. I then marked down the number of articles that seemed to focus exclusively on the corruption cases of the former presidents and their confidants.

This method of searching was problematic for several reasons. First, the Chen corruption saga began long before his first formal indictment. The Supreme Prosecutor’s Office declared him a defendant immediately after he stepped down as President in May of 2008, and by the time of the formal indictment, the Chen affair had already become a tabloid-style drama. Allegations against Lee have never attracted this type of attention. Nevertheless, the Lee case is a reheated and repackaged controversy. According to a spokesperson of the Special Investigation Panel of the Supreme Prosecutor's Office, Chen Shui-bian accused Lee of money laundering in the days following Chen's indictment. The SIP claimed it would investigate Lee as a result. Additionally, Wellington Koo, Lee’s lawyer, has indicated that, in his opinion, the prosecution's current allegations against Lee contain no new evidence from the 2004 trial of Hsu Ping-chiang, the former Major General and Director of the NSB Accounting Office. That trial resulted in Hsu's acquittal. This digression therefore shows that my choice of dates was, to a large degree, arbitrary. Absent a clear "starting date" for either controversy, I chose the periods following the two formal indictments.

There is also the possibility that I overlooked some Chinese-language stories about the cases. After all, my Chinese reading skills are not perfect, and I was scanning headlines and summaries rapidly. A third problem was the necessity to make arbitrary decisions at times as to whether an article was really about a trial or whether the article simply referred to the trial in passing. For example, I tried not to count articles that were primarily general criticisms of Ma or the KMT and that happened to briefly mention one of the trials as a supporting detail. Finally, I did not separate editorials out from harder news stories. Therefore, please look at the large picture behind the below numbers as opposed to taking the numbers as exact. You might find different specific numbers depending on how you search, although you will surely see the pattern to which I am referring.

With these disclaimers out of the way, I'll note that what I found corresponded to my initial suspicions. Chen Shui-bian’s indictment was a media circus, while media coverage of the Lee event has been deafening by its relative silence.

For the Chen period in question, the China Post published over 25 case-related articles. For the corresponding Lee period, the China Post published none.

For the Chen period in question, the Taipei Times published about 25 case-related stories. For the Lee period, the Taipei Times published five. With the exception of two articles covering the Open Letter to Ma that foreign academics composed to protest the Lee indictment, the articles were all reactive commentaries to old news as opposed to being based on new information.

For the Chen period in question, the United Daily published about 15 case-related stories, several of which covered Chen’s 2008 accusations against Lee. My eyes may have been deceiving me by this point. I was tired of searching (the United Daily search was my last search). I question my eyes only because I find it hard to believe that a Chinese-language paper would publish fewer pieces about the indictment than an English-language paper that targets a foreign audience (such as the China Post). Yet the Chen-Lee discrepancy still held true. For the Lee period, the United Daily published four or five case-related stories only.

Finally, for the Chen period in question, the Liberty Times published far more case-related stories than I was willing to count. Actually, I stopped counting at 33, well before the end of the period. On the other hand, for the Lee period, the Liberty Times published about three pieces, all of them  reacting to old news.

According to the media outlets' ideologies, there seemed to be differences in the types of stories published. The Blue papers seemed to focus more on releasing new tawdry details of the cases, while the Green papers seemed to be more reactive. This might account for the relatively large number of Chen stories in the Liberty Times. Contributors to the Green paper were not only covering the revelations of the Chen and Lee cases, they were also covering what they felt the cases said about Taiwan’s judiciary, about the KMT, and about the Ma administration.

Nevertheless, the overall difference in the quantity of post-indictment Chen articles and post-indictment Lee articles is striking. Unlike the Chen case two weeks after that indictment, the Lee case has, for now, dropped off the map. There are certainly several logical explanations. 

It is possible that the media simply had more to talk about in the case of Chen. Most of the Chen family was on trial in that case as well as several close associates of the president, presenting more targets for the media. Remember all of the stories about Chen Chi-chung, Huang Jui-ching and various Chen confidants? On the contrary, the Lee case has only two defendants: Lee and his aide, Liu Tai-ying.
It is also possible that the evidence against Lee is less convincing or less vulnerable to spin by various parties that might seek to attempt such spin. If Wellington Koo is correct, and Lee’s case really is a mere rehashing of old evidence, then there may be fewer saucy details for case insiders to leak to the media.

There is also the matter of the above-mentioned tabloid-style treatment of the Chen case. Two years ago, media organs might have simply been operating under the assumption that Chen news would sell papers, and then created news accordingly. 

Of course, cynical minds might think of a fourth possibility. If the Lee indictment really was politically motivated, those who pushed for his indictment may have since realized that packaging this indictment in a manner that favors their cause may not be easy. Since Lee was indicted over a decade after stepping down from the presidency and over two years after being allegedly ratted out by Chen, the current charges, introduced just seven months before Taiwan's upcoming presidential election, look a bit suspicious. Therefore, those who pushed for his indictment (I will refrain from speculation as to who "those" could be) may be less inclined to keep the media involved in the Lee case than they were in piquing the media's interest in the Chen case. 

I could be completely wrong on all accounts. I do welcome your speculation. What really accounts for the astonishing difference in media treatment of Chen and Lee?