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    Monday, December 14, 2009

    A victory for Beijing in the New Great Game

    Beijing: A few hours ago, in a place called Samadepe on the rarely visited border between the Central Asian states of Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, the global balance of power tilted ever so slightly.

    Flanked by the leaders of Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, Chinese President Hu Jintao today turned a symbolic wheel as oil started flowing into a new 1,833-kilometre pipeline that snakes east from Turkmenistan and across Central Asia to Xinjiang in the far west of China, where it will connect with China’s own pipeline network.

    Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has insisted that Russia is not bothered by the opening of the pipeline, but that’s difficult to believe. Mr. Putin’s nine years in power (the first eight as president) have been spent trying to reestablish Russia as a global force. Key to that effort has been its role as one of the world’s biggest producers of natural gas, a position that was strengthened by its effective monopoly over the pipelines coming out of the former Soviet states of Central Asia.

    That monopoly has now been broken. The Turkmenistan-Xinjiang pipeline is the first that will transport gas from Turkmenistan, the world’s fourth-largest producer, to market without going through Russian territory. When it reaches full capacity in another three years, it will pump up to 40 billion cubic metres annually, feeding China’s rapidly-growing and energy-starved economy, meeting half of the country’s current demand.

    In building the new pipeline, China can also claim victory in a race with both the United States and Europe. Both have sought for years to establish a route to bring Turkmen gas west without going through Russia, efforts that were repeatedly thwarted by interference from Moscow as well as Iran, which blocked efforts to build a pipeline underneath the Caspian Sea.

    Though Mr. Hu was characteristically understated about the importance of the moment his new partners were effusive in welcoming Beijing to centre stage in Central Asia.

    “This project not only has commercial or economic value. It is also political,” Turkmen Presidnet Kurbanguly Berdymukhamedov told reporters. “China, through its wise and farsighted policy has become one of the key guarantors of global security.”

    It’s a change that happened slowly. Russia has seen its already waning influence over its former backyard plummet since the onset of the global recession, which has hit the Kremlin’s coffers – and thus its ability to speak the language the Central Asia’s kleptocrats prefer – hard. The United States and Europe, meanwhile, have danced back and forth between courting the region’s leaders and condemning them, occasionally breaking ties completely, over human-rights abuses.

    In the meantime, China, a late joiner to struggle for influence in Central Asia (dubbed “The Great Game” in the 19th Century as Russia and Britain jostled there), has quietly used its financial clout to make fast friends in the region, handing out massive loans and building the pipeline connecting Kazakhstan to Xinjiang. China’s Communist leaders, naturally, have no qualms about doing business with the unelected “presidents-for-life” who rule Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.

    Last year, I was invited to the city of Almaty in Kazakhstan to address the Eurasian Media Forum on the theme of a “new Cold War” between Russia and the West, sitting on a panel alongside such combatants as former U.S. National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski and Kremlin spin doctor Gleb Pavlovsky.

    When the Americans and the Russians took a break from verbally attacking each other, an audience member asked a Chinese panelist where Beijing stood in the escalating dispute. His response came back to me today as I watched the television footage from Turkmenistan.

    “We leave matters of war and peace to the Americans and the Russians,” he said, adding that China preferred to focus on building up economic relations with its neighbours.

    The audience, made up of Central Asia’s business and political elite, gratefully applauded.

    Thursday, November 26, 2009

    Face to face with Comrade Duch


    Phnom Penh: At first, I was going to rush outside with everyone else in the courtroom, to gulp some fresh air and a plastic cup of water after a morning of listening to prosecutor William Smith list off the crimes committed by Kaing Guek Eav, the murderous Khmer Rouge jailor better known as Comrade Duch.

    But then I remembered that I had surreptitiously stuffed my Blackberry in my blazer pocket on the way in to the court (mobile phones aren't allowed in court but I had been reluctant to hand it over to an unknown fate with the security guards outside). I had snuck it through security once, but trying again might be pushing my luck. I decided to stretch my legs by wandering around the courtroom instead.

    As the courtroom rapidly emptied. I realized there was someone else doing the same thing: Comrade Duch.

    I couldn't help but stare. Here was the man who stands accused of - and has confessed to an indirect role in - the deaths of more than 12,000 people while he ran Phnom Penh's notorious S-21 torture and interrogation centre.

    Just two days before, I had visited S-21 which, other than the gallows and the graves that stand in front of it, still looks from the outside like the high school it was before the Khmer Rouge arrived in 1975. It's a haunted place, filled with room after room of black-and-white photographs of those who spent their final days there.

    Some stare at the camera with anger or defiance, others with fear plain on their faces. But most wear no expression at all, as if they've had all emotion beaten out of them. They look as though they no longer cared whether they lived or died.

    Watching Duch pace around the courtroom - separated from the audience area where I stood by a pane of bulletproof glass to prevent revenge attacks - it was difficult to imagine this small, ordinary looking 67-year-old as the same man who oversaw a place where men were forced to eat human feces, women were raped and babies were bashed to death against trees.

    Hands thrust deep in his pockets as he paced, perhaps thinking about the final statement and apology he would deliver to the court in a few minutes time, he looked like what he should have been: a retired mathematics teacher. Someone's grandfather. With nearly parted grey hair and a crisp white shirt, he looked exactly like a man I had seen outside Phnom Penh's disused train station earlier that morning.

    As I pondered this, Duch turned and faced the almost-empty auditorium. His slightly watery eyes scanned the seats as if looking for someone. Eventually, they met mine.

    A moment passed quietly as I uncomfortably returned his gaze. I don't know what he was searching for - a smile? a wave? - but I think I was hoping to catch a glimpse of the inner monster, the thing that separated him from the rest of us and made him capable of doing such horrible things. Or maybe a hint that he is, as he says, tormented by "excruciating" remorse over what he'd done.

    In Duch's blank eyes, I saw neither. Just an old man in a cage looking out curiously at those looking in.

    The courtroom started to fill back up again. Duch turned to consult with his lawyers.

    A few minutes later, he stood and told the court again how sorry he was.

    I had no idea whether to believe him.

    Tuesday, October 27, 2009

    Mr. Hu, tear down this firewall!




    Beijing: It was supposed to be a place to remember where you were and what it meant to you on Nov. 9, 1989, when the Berlin Wall fell between East and West Germany, marking the beginning of the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe.

    But something very different – and fascinating – is happening instead at the Berlin Twitter Wall, a website that went online last week as part of the city of Berlin’s anniversary celebrations. Instead of reminiscences about life behind the old Iron Curtain, the site is being overloaded with complaints about a new barrier sealing people off from the outside world: China’s thick web of Internet censorship, referred to locally as the Great Firewall (or GFW, in character-saving Twitterspeak).

    Most of the writers posted in Chinese, and claimed to be doing so from inside China, where Twitter and dozens of other popular websites have been blocked by the Communist government headed by President Hu Jintao. (Click here for an incomplete list of the banned sites.)

    Blocked sites can be accessed from inside China via virtual private networks, provided you have both a private computer and the tech savvy to do so. The entire province of Xinjiang – home to 21 million people – has been almost completely without Internet service since deadly ethnic riots hit the city of Urumqi on July 5.

    Here is a sampling of some of the postings the Berlin Twitter Wall has seen in the past couple of days. The tag #fotw refers to “fall of the wall”:

    “All kinds of walls will have their day of collapse. #fotw” – posted Monday, Oct. 26 by “xtzc.”

    “The collapse of the wall needs everyone’s help.” – posted Monday, Oct. 26 by xiaopohen,

    “I have a dream: We will see the anniversary if the fall of the Great Fire Wall in near future.” – posted Monday, Oct. 26 by guoyumin


    Here are a few others translated by the China Digital Times:

    “#fotw We climb the Great Firewall because it has blocked out all of the dissent, and we do so to eventually get rid of the Wall.” – by miaofeng

    “The wall built for others will eventually become a grave for the builders. #fotw” – by liujiang

    “#fotw It has been twenty years, and we are still in the Wall.” – by gengmao

    “#FOTW All Chinese on the electronic Berlin Wall, spectacular!” – by peterlue

    “My apologies to German people a million times [for taking over this site]. But I think if Germans learn about our situation, they would feel sorry for us a million times.” – by ChrisicGong


    Predictably, by Monday evening local time, the Berlin Twitter Wall was no longer accessible in Beijing.

    Mr. Hu, please?

    Monday, October 19, 2009

    A police state without traffic police

    Beijing:Qiguai. It means strange,” my Chinese teacher said, repeating the new word again so that I could grasp its rising-then-falling pronunciation.

    “What did you find qiguai when you first arrived in Beijing?”

    “The taxi drivers,” I responded, without hesitation. The teacher giggled as my classmate/wife tried to explain that Canada’s rules of the road are somewhat different than those in China, primarily because, well, there are rules and people follow them. Getting into a Beijing taxi is often akin to taking a seatbeltless ride on the Zipper, or one of those other rides that tour Canada’s exhibitions each summer.

    The only thing more dangerous than being in a Beijing taxi is daring to cross the street in front of one. After 10 months of living here, I’ve concluded that the rules of the Beijing road are roughly as follows:

    - Trucks and buses are supreme, and can pretty much drive any where and any way they choose. Bus drivers may be public servants in other countries, but in Beijing they’re threats to public safety.

    - Cars come next, with bigger cars clearly having the right to force themselves into any lane they choose, even if occupied by a smaller vehicle. This may be a Communist state in name, but there’s a rigid caste system when it comes to travelling on paved surfaces.

    - Bicycles and those old-fashioned enough to still ride them are expected to scatter out of the way of anything with a motor.

    - Pedestrians are the bottom of the ladder, and enjoy the exact opposite of the right of way. Even if you’re already in the intersection, and the walk signal is green, you’re expected to dive out of the way of any car that happens to turn right through the crosswalk. If pedestrians really needed to get where they are going, they’d be in a car, preferably a large one.

    It really is that bad. In his farewell to China blog entitled “How I survived China” James Fallows, the outgoing correspondent from The Atlantic magazine, writes about the advice he got from a Chinese doctor: “The most important ‘medical’ step you can take is to put on a seat belt in a car, wear a helmet on a bike, and run for your life in crosswalks,” the doctor told him.

    Fallows goes on: “For the foreign diplomatic corps, the leading cause of death is traffic accidents. I worried every day about being mowed down by a bus, since they don’t stop at lights. My wife was run over in Beijing by a motor scooter that was going the opposite way down an eight-lane one-way road and was running a red light too. She’s fine now; the driver roared away, still against traffic, as soon as he climbed back on the bike.”

    No one who lives in Beijing could have been surprised by that story (my parents are still recovering from the shock of a minor accident that occurred earlier this month when our car was struck by a driver backing down the wrong lane of a highway near the Great Wall). But sitting in our taxi this afternoon as it idled in thick Sunday traffic on the way home from our language lesson, it struck me that the drivers aren’t the problem – it’s the police who do so little to enforce the rules of the road that actually do exist.

    It’s the oddest thing about living in this still-authoritarian state. The police are ubiquitous and absent at the same time. They stand on street corners (or nap in their cars) as cars recklessly run red lights right in front of them. It’s little surprise that – according to the official Xinhua news agency – China had the highest rate of road accident deaths in the world in 2007, at 5.1 per 100,000 cars.

    Part of the problem is corruption. According to the Shanghai Oriental Morning Post, 47.2 per cent of all the new drivers they surveyed paid a bribe (the average price was 502 RMB, or about $75) to get their licenses rather than take the official drivers’ test. (Though could you pass the English-language version? Here it is.)

    To my eyes, another factor seems to be that no one has told the policemen that they’re supposed to do police-y things like protect the public. During the National Day celebrations earlier this month, armed police were deployed on nearly every street corner to ensure the day passed smoothly and no one would do something outlandish like wave a Tibetan flag.

    But that didn’t mean that any of them would lift an arm to help get snarled traffic moving again, or intervene to question a taxi driver who sped through a crowd of terrified pedestrians without so much as using a turn signal to warn anyone of his intention to do so.

    The latter example is something that happens frequently, and right in front of the police who stroll about my east Beijing neighbourhood. (Nor do the same police ever intervene to break up the obvious drug-pushing and prostitution that takes place on the corners they patrol, but that’s another blog.)

    But try walking through the streets with a T-shirt reading “One-party dictatorship is a disaster” (as lawyer Liu Shihui did recently in Guangzhou) and the police tend to move quickly and decisively.

    Now I’ve never been entrusted with running a one-party police state, but as a pedestrian living in the capital of one, it’s all just a little qiguai.

    Saturday, September 5, 2009

    Chinese democracy


    Beijing, Saturday, Aug. 29: Living and working in China can sometimes be difficult, especially for a foreign journalist. The ever-growing restrictions on the Internet and freedom of speech can be truly depressing for those of us who make a living saying what we think and trying to coax others to do the same.

    Sometimes it feels like the government in Beijing can behave abysmally and get away with it simply because it is far too economically powerful and important to be challenged any more.

    But a week in North Korea (you can see all the writing, photos and video Sean Gallagher and I produced from our trip here on The Globe and Mail website.) has given me some important perspective on where China is, and how far it has come in the 30 years since Deng Xiaoping renounced Mao's excesses and implemented his policies of reform and opening.

    North Korea hasn't had its Deng Xiaoping or Mikhail Gorbachev yet. It's still trapped in an era many Chinese would recognize from the bad old days. The paranoia that ruled during the Cultural Revolution – the fear that you could be denounced, arrested or worse for the smallest indiscretion – is still thick on the streets of Pyongyang. Catastrophic economic decisions that recall Mao's Great Leap Forward still wreak havoc on North Korea's industry and agriculture.

    Halfway through our week in North Korea, Sean and I confided half-jokingly to each other that we were starting to miss the relative freedom of China. By today, we were lusting for Beijing's smoggy air like a long-remembered lover.

    Following one last scare at Pyongyang Airport that involved a border guard suspicious of my passport, we boarded our Air Koryo flight home after one of the most interesting and intense weeks either of us had ever experienced. As our Russian-made Ilyushin-62 lifted off, Sean and I looked at each other, smiled and exhaled deeply. When it touched down at Beijing Capital Airport at just after 10 a.m., we started laughing out loud.

    Safely back on Chinese soil, we could talk freely for the first time in days. While in Pyongyang, we had been guarded in what we said even inside our shared hotel room, assuming it was listened to (a suspicion that was bolstered every time we opened our door and spotted a Workers' Party cadre lingering in the hall outside with seemingly very little to do).

    In the presence of our minders, who stayed with us from dusk until dawn, we stuck to our cover stories. He was an English teacher, obsessed with correcting my Canadian pronunciation. I was the author of a book on recent Russian history (true enough), and fascinated by the Soviet-era friendship between Moscow and Pyongyang.

    Repeating our lines was nearly as dull as it was difficult. Maybe it gave us some small insight into how careful North Koreans have to be in what they say every day of their lives.

    For all modern China's flaws – and there are many – it is now a place where ordinary people, at least in Beijing and other big cities, can act and dress how they want. No one has to wear a Mao pin or join the Communist Party if they don't want to.

    My earlier caveats aside (and they remain important), Chinese can also largely think and say what they want, provided they don't get too deeply into politics, or try and post those thoughts on the Internet.

    Many Chinese are affluent now, and many more are no longer poor. Most of them are free to decide which way is the best for them to make money and feed their family. Those who have cash spend it how they choose, often travelling the world as they do so.

    All of this progress gets too often forgotten by Western journalists such as myself who see a country in mid-journey and judge it by the distance it still has to go, rather than how far it has travelled.

    Several large Chinese tour groups were in North Korea at the same time that Sean and I were there. Though our North Korean minders limited our interaction with them, I suspect the younger Chinese wanted to see what it looks like to live in a fanatically ideological country that has cut itself off from the world. The older ones came perhaps to remember what it was like to live in just such a place.

    They can do that now. For them, it's the past, no matter how painful.

    Sadly, for North Koreans it remains the here and now.

    The pool hustlers of Pyongyang


    Pyongyang, Friday, Aug. 28: Finally, on the last day of our tour, Sean and I were given a few hours in the evening to unwind, a rare and badly needed break from a carefully packed itinerary that required us to be up and eating breakfast by 7 a.m. every day and that kept us busy until at least 9 p.m.

    Today we started with the 2.5-hour drive south to the Demilitarized Zone (between North and South Korea), then returned to Pyongyang in time to tour the city's Soviet-style metro system. Fascinating, but exhausting.

    Throughout the week here, our days have seemed designed to be so busy as to keep us from having any unscripted moments where we might meet and interact with real live North Koreans. At one point I suggested that we skip some of the formal sights and spend an afternoon in a park. Our guides just laughed, the same as they did when I inquired what Pyongyang nightlife was like.

    So we were grateful to discover that the 47-floor Yanggakdo Hotel that we were confined to at night came equipped with bowling alleys, a casino and a billiards room in the basement. (The photo, in case you're wondering, is completely unrelated. It's from the Arirang Mass Games that we saw the previous night.)

    Sean and I settled on pool as our leisure of choice, and he quickly demonstrated that he had spent far more time in the pool halls of London, England than I had in Stittsville, Ontario. I always struggle in games where there's no ice involved.

    After three rapid, easy wins, Sean set off in search of what the British call the loo, leaving me to practice bank shots on my own. It didn't amuse me for long.

    I went up to the empty bar and asked the long-haired young woman behind the counter for two more Taedonggang beers. She handed the drinks over, then smiled sweetly.

    “Me, I play with you?”

    I was momentarily confused about what she was suggesting, but followed her gaze to the ready pool table behind me.

    “You play pool?” I asked.

    “A little,” she replied, still smiling.

    It proved to be quite an understatement. She gracefully potted a ball off the break and then proceeded to sink six more in a row without missing. Each time she made a particularly improbable shot, she would give me an apologetic look and say “sorry.”

    In the corner, the nightly news played on a muted television. Looking over, I could see Kim Jong-il had visited some establishment and given advice to those working there, just as he seemed to every day. And yet, no one ever seems to have seen the Dear Leader in person.

    Finally, it was my turn to shoot. Dazed, I knocked a ball uselessly down the table, missing the corner pocket by several inches. “Ooh, unlucky,” my tormentor said, covering her mouth to stifle a giggle prompted by my ineptitude. She swiftly put me out of my misery by dunking the eight-ball.

    By this time, Sean had returned, and another waitress had emerged. She suggested that we play in teams – North Korea versus the United Nations, 1950s style.

    I'm slightly embarrassed to report that despite Sean's best efforts, the North Koreans – dressed in matching blue uniforms that made them look like air hostesses from the 1970s – ran the Western imperialists out of the room, winning four of five games.

    Though they spoke little English, my missed shots and bumbling attempts at speaking Korean gave everyone something to laugh about. Until a Workers' Party cadre wandered in and saw four people having fun that hadn't been government sanctioned.

    He barked at the two women and ordered them back to work.

    On the television set, images of life in this socialist paradise flickered silently.

    Passport games - trying to stay out of Pyongyang Prison


    Pyongyang, Thursday, Aug. 27: For several days now, I have been inside North Korea with a secret. Jammed deep in my pocket, under my wallet, was a passport containing stamps that identified me as a Canadian journalist living in China.

    It was not the passport I'd presented at the border. When we crossed from China, I had handed over an older document that was still valid but had nothing in it hinting at my profession. One of the North Koreans assigned to mind and monitor us had kept that document, saying it would be returned to me when I was leaving the country.

    It was the second passport that occasionally made it difficult to sleep at night. Two U.S. television journalists, Laura Ling and Euna Lee, were arrested earlier in the year for illegally crossing North Korea's border with China. They had been sentenced to 12 years hard labour, and served nearly five months before Bill Clinton flew to Pyongyang to rescue them.

    I found myself wondering if Jean Chrétien would do the same for me.

    Keeping the incriminating document in my pocket worked until this sunny morning, when our tour guides informed us that we would visit the mausoleum of Kim Il-sung to bow before the waxy remains of the “Great Leader” who is still so revered here.

    As we pulled up in the parking lot, our guide turned around in her seat and struck fear into my heart with one politely uttered phrase. “You will have to empty your pockets in front of the security guards before you enter the mausoleum.”

    Terror. My run of luck – I had gotten in and out of such journalist-unfriendly places as Zimbabwe, Syria, Belarus and Iraq in recent years without serious incident – was over. If I hid my passport on our government-provided minibus, there was no guarantee it wouldn't be uncovered while I was touring the mausoleum. Putting it in my backpack and handing it over at the coat check seemed equally foolhardy.

    I had no other options that I could think of, so I did the only thing that came to mind. I let our minders exit the tour bus ahead of me, and waited until I was the last person on the bus. Then I took my passport out of my pocket and jammed it down the back of my pants.

    Pleased with myself, I took a few confident steps towards the security guards who were supposed to frisk me. Almost immediately I had the unfamiliar and disconcerting sensation of a small blue booklet sliding slowly over my backside. It picked up speed as it headed south down my right leg.

    Looking and feeling desperate for a bathroom break, I asked where the nearest toilet was and broke into a stiff-legged run as soon as I was pointed in the right direction. I got inside (it was mercifully empty) and slammed the door just in time to grab the passport as it landed on the top of my shoe.

    I still hadn't gone through the pocket-emptying security check, so I had no choice but to try it again. This time, the passport went down the front of my pants. If the guards check there, I decided, we have problems no matter what they find.

    Though I was drenched in sweat by this point, the trick worked and the guards spent only a few seconds at my wallet and the lint I retrieved from my pocket. I joined the long line of tourists and North Koreans who had come to pay their respects to the corpse of a megalomaniac dictator who died 15 years ago.

    Some wept openly, apparently in sadness, at the sight of the man who instigated the pointless Korean War and oversaw one of the cruellest police states in modern history. Others stared at him expressionlessly.

    Maybe it was the uncomfortable placement of my passport, but I found myself wanting to laugh at the absurdity of it all.

    What to do with a stuffed Nicaraguan crocodile


    Pyongyang and Myohyangsan, North Korea - Wednesday, Aug. 26: Ever wondered what to do with that tacky gift you got for your birthday?

    Kim Jong-il has come up with the perfect solution: build a palace in the mountains an appropriate distance away, and stick all the stuff that clashes with your kitchen cupboards up there.

    Like the stuffed crocodile carrying a tray of drinks that Nicaragua's Sandinista rebels thought his father, Kim Il-sung, would just love. Or that stylish but out-of-date bulletproof limousine that good old Joseph Stalin gave his family back in the day.

    The so-called International Friendship Exhibition, two buildings tucked high in the Myohyangsan mountain resort area north of Pyongyang, has to be one of the odder tourist sites in the world. The front room features a map of the world with three digital numbers on it – the first counting the number of gifts received by Kim Il-sung, the second the number given to Kim Jong-il. If you're wondering, father (who apparently continues to receive gifts from admirers even 15 years after his death) still leads son in this who-is-more-loved race. The third number, which glows at 180, keeps track of how many countries gifts have been received from.

    While some gave fancy cars and stuffed crocs, others were more circumspect in their gifting. A serving tray with the word “Jamaica” painted on it looked like it had been swiped from a beach bar. A small blue pinny, again from Nicaragua, seemed like something you'd receive for taking part in, but not winning, a sporting competition.

    Canada, you'll be pleased to know, was among the 180 countries that showed their admiration. A polar bear skin (head still on) was sent to Kim Il-sung's by an anonymous Canadian citizen and now hangs upside-down in a glass display case. The Communist Party of Canada apparently once saw fit to present the tyrants of Pyongyang with a Group of Seven coffee table book.

    After a brief stop at a nearby Buddhist temple (where a token monk spoke to us in the company of a female soldier), we made the 21/2-half hour drive to Pyongyang and were taken to one of the sites I had been most anxious to see: the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum, which in another country might be called the Korean War Museum.

    To visit the museum, in north-central Pyongyang, is to be told to forget everything you know about what happened in the 1950-1953 conflict. The official view put forth by the North Korean government has nothing to do with what's in Canadian history books.

    In a succession of films, murals and moving battlefield mock-ups, visitors are pounded with a single message: that it was the United States that started the war on June 25, 1950 and that the Korean People's Army eventually handed the superpower an embarrassing defeat.

    “Some of the Americans who come argue and say this isn't the case,” said our tour guide, a cheerful woman sporting a military uniform and an unreadable smile. “But history is history. You can't change it.”

    Into the land of the Kims - a journey in North Korea


    Sinuiju, North Korea - Tuesday, Aug. 25: There was, of course, always the likelihood that the North Koreans wouldn't let in the country two foreigners with suspicious back stories (I entered on the premise that I was a Russian historian, Sean as an English teacher living in China). Or worse, that they'd let us in and keep us there until Bill Clinton's next trip to Pyongyang.

    But the border and customs formalities went surprisingly smoothly, likely because we ran into a Chinese tour group that was crossing at the same time and cheerfully adopted the two crazy laowai (foreigners) as their own. By the time they got to the customs room, the guards were too busy going through bags stuffed with boil-in-bucket noodles (some of the Chinese were apparently worried they wouldn't be fed in North Korea) to give our documents more than a peremptory look.

    (I presented a passport that had no markings identifying me as a reporter anywhere on it, and kept my other one – which has an incriminating Chinese journalist visa in it – jammed deep in my pocket. More on that later.) The weather was a warm and clear, and Sean and I were soon working on what we would come to call our Pyongyang tan.

    Our first stop inside North Korea was a massive bronze statue on the main city square of the “Great Leader” Kim Il-sung, the founding leader of North Korea, shaking his fist like he's playing rock-paper-scissors.

    In the official narrative here, the Great Leader didn't really go anywhere when he died and passed his tyrannical powers on to his son Kim Jong-il in 1994. Under the country's constitution, the elder Kim is North Korea's “eternal president,” though it's unclear what his day-to-day responsibilities are beyond appearing in old propaganda films. Red posters around the country tell citizens that Kim Il-sung will be with them forever.

    “In our country, it is custom to bow before the statue of the Great Leader. Will you join us in this custom?” our tour guide said flatly. Sean and I had known this moment was coming. There was nothing to do but bow. When in Sinuiju…

    After a quick tour of the Sinuiju Historical Museum, which was dedicated to the life stories of the two Kims (the elder apparently visited Sinuiju 217 times, the younger 186), as well as Kim Jong-suk, the mother of Kim Jong-il (only two visits to Sinuiju), we ate a lunch of beef, rice and kimchi and boarded the 2:10 p.m. train for the five-hour-20-minute hour journey to Pyongyang.

    The wood-panelled train car looked like something out of the 1950s Soviet Union, with portraits of Kim Il-sung and a youthful Kim Jong-il hanging where Stalin and Lenin would once have been. The scene on the platform as we pulled away was similarly out of a Second World War movie: we could see weaponless soldiers milling around as martial music played over the loudspeakers. Merchants in grey Mao suits tried to shove their wares on the train as it began to roll away, and women waved farewell to men heading south to the capital city.

    We were accompanied for the journey by a group of government-assigned tour guides who were assigned to watch us during our time in North Korea, as well as Workers' Party cadres who silently kept watch over all of us. They spent much of the ride to Pyongyang grilling us about our backgrounds. Why did you want to come to North Korea? How long were you in China? Where did you go to university? What was the theme of your book about Russia?

    (Sometimes the conversations veered into the bizarre. Later in the trip, Sean, a Londoner, was asked what year the Tower of London was built. When he failed that test, our minders began to openly question his Britishness. He tried to brush it off by jokingly saying he was more into science than history, and wound up having to explain the concept of a vacuum as proof of that scientific bent.)

    Out the window, a scene of abject poverty rolled by. Grey industrial with no sign of functioning factories and endless fields of rice and corn that were being worked by hand or by oxcart in the absence of farm equipment and fuel. There were few cars or even bicycles on the roads, and people could be seen walking tens of kilometres from anywhere.

    “Long Live Kim Jong-il, a leader for the 21st Century!” proclaimed a red propaganda poster that we saw in almost every town we passed.

    Our minders strictly warned us not to turn our cameras out the window, and it was easy to see why. This was not the image of a powerful country the Kim regime is trying so desperately to present to the world.

    Through the looking glass: peeking at North Korea from across the Yalu


    Dandong, China - Monday, Aug. 24: Photographer Sean Gallagher and I landed today in the northeastern Chinese city of Dandong after a 90-minute flight on Air China from Beijing. We were met at the airport and taken straight to a hotel called the Pearl Island Golf Club.

    There's a driving range here, but no golf course that we can find. Our room does offer a nice view across the Yalu River into North Korea, though.

    It's our first glimpse into the Hermit Kingdom: a row of grey two- and three-storey buildings that appear to be uninhabited. Further east, there's a Ferris wheel that doesn't turn and an industrial zone where a single smokestack pumps black smoke into the air. The other factories, whatever they make or made, appear closed.

    The contrast with the Chinese side is unmistakable. This side of the river is a construction site, with multi-storey apartment blocks and office buildings rising before your eyes. The locals stroll along a paved boardwalk and sit on the banks to stare at the Hermit Kingdom across the Yalu.

    The North Korean side is deathly quiet in contrast. Even using the zoom lenses on our cameras, we only see a handful of residents, most of them walking or cycling. Not a single car drives by in the time we watch the other bank, though there is the occasional truck.

    After an hour on our own, our tourist agent picks us up and takes us to the waterfront. Our first stop is the Broken Bridge, a broken metal span that was cut in half by a U.S. B-29 during the Korean War.

    But that history is not what draws people here any more. Like the rest of the tourists, Sean and I walk right past the photographs explaining what happened here in 1953. It's at the end that we get our cameras out and resume photographing the south bank of the Yalu. The B-29's intent may have been to cut off a vital supply route for the North Korean army that was then pushing UN forces back south with the help of Chinese “volunteer” fighters, but 56 years later its lasting impact has been to create a tourist stop that allows voyeurs to get a few hundred metres closer to North Korea without the need for a visa.

    “I feel a bit dirty,” Sean confesses in his London accent after we finish the 20 yuan (about $3.50) tour. It does indeed feel wrong to stare and point at the people across the river as though they are zoo animals.

    But peering into Stalinism's last redoubt is a lucrative industry here in Dandong. After our walk to the end of the Broken Bridge, we board a tour boat crammed with more than 70 Chinese tourists. The boat crosses the middle of the river – presumably into North Korea waters – as cameras snap away and tourists pose against a backdrop of patrolling soldiers and bare-chested men wading waist-deep into the water to fish with nets. Another packed boat leaves every 30 minutes.

    Our boat captain has chosen The Carpenters as the soundtrack for the 30-minute excursion. Every sha-la-la-la. Every whoah-oh-oh. At first it seems wildly inappropriate, but later it occurs to me that Yesterday Once More (the song's title) might be exactly how many Chinese feel as they peer at a country still living through the disastrous leadership China itself experienced decades ago during the Cultural Revolution and Great Leap Forward.

    Dinner that night is an alcohol-soaked affair at a North Korean restaurant in Dandong. Beef, rice, kimchi and a fruit alcohol that our guide mixes into our Taedonggang beers.

    The patrons are in a great mood, singing and clapping along with a lively stage show. It's just a guess, but it feels like they're delighted to be among the very few allowed to leave the paranoid and impoverished place across the river.

    Saturday, July 11, 2009

    The bum's rush out of Kashgar


    Kashgar, China - I was in deep sleep when I heard someone ringing the doorbell of my room at the Tian Yuan Hotel. I looked at the clock, saw it was only 8 a.m. and rolled over to go back to sleep. Whoever it was could come back later. There was a “do not disturb” sign hanging in the door.

    The bell rang again, then a third time. If it was housekeeping, they obviously thought some sort of emergency cleaning needed to be done.

    Groggily, I put my glasses on and opened the door a crack. A short man in a red shirt peered back earnestly. He told me he was from the local government, and that I had to leave the city on an 11 a.m. flight. There were four other men in the hall, two of them in blue police uniforms.

    “I'm sorry, but the security situation is not good,” the man in red told me. “You must leave the city for your own safety.”

    I told him that I had a flight back to Urumqi the following morning. (I had been in the city for less than 24 hours, reporting on the local government's plan to demolish most of Kashgar's historic Old City.) The man in red seemed to know this already.

    “No, you must leave today,” he said firmly, shaking his head.

    Arrangements had been made for me to be on the 11 a.m. flight out.

    After awkwardly gobbling down my breakfast under the supervision of two police officers, I was taken to the lobby where Elizabeth Dalziel, a photographer with the Associated Press, was already waiting with her own security entourage. Together we were driven to the airport and instructed to book flights back to Urumqi.

    That's when it descended into farce. Elizabeth and I sat down and waited for the security men who were escorting us to buy us tickets and put us on a plane. That's how it goes in the movies after all.

    But the security guys did nothing for the sort. They stood at the other end of the ticket counter from us, expectantly us to buy our own way back to the provincial capital, Urumqi. (Why they thought we'd be “safer” in Urumqi – where 156 people died in riots this week – than Kashgar was never explained. The best answer I got was from the man in red, who said that while Kashgar appeared safe, that “it could change at any second.”) The 11 a.m. flight took off without us, and the standoff dragged on.

    The police instructed Elizabeth and I to buy tickets for the next flight out, just after 2 p.m. We called the Department of Foreign Affairs in Beijing, as well as the government media office in Urumqi, looking for clarification of our situation.

    Were we under arrest? If not, could we return to the city? Why hadn't we been put on a plane, as the man in red said we would be?

    Revealingly, the answers were different depending on which government department we called. Officials in Beijing had no idea we had been detained or why. The propaganda officials in Urumqi – who had made a show of being accommodating to the media this week, a clean break from a year ago when foreign journalists were completely barred from Tibet in the wake of riots there – told us that the officers in Kashgar had made a mistake and that we were free to go.

    We passed that on to the officers guarding us, who retorted that they had been ordered to take us to the airport, and that those orders hadn't changed. An official from the local government promised to come out and mediate the situation, but never showed up.

    “It's not possible to arrange interviews today,” she said. “You should leave.”

    Even if we wanted to, we couldn't have. After the 11 a.m. flight, commercial air traffic in and out of Kashgar was stopped, apparently so that a succession of military planes could land and offload more troops.

    Though Xinjiang is Chinese soil, both Urumqi and Kashgar have the feel of occupied cities this week.

    Elizabeth got frustrated and – noticing that our guards had long since stopped paying attention us – made a daring run into the city to photograph afternoon prayers at one of the city's many mosques.

    She was eventually found by police and brought back to the airport. Our fates were sealed, so rather than spend the night in Kashgar Airport, we gave up and bought tickets to the next flight out to Urumqi.

    What happened in Kashgar today that they didn't want the foreign media to see?

    To the best of my knowledge, nothing major. But with foreign journalists kicked out of the city, the Internet switched off and international calls blocked, we may never know for sure.

    Climate change and Japan: Lost in perspiration

    Tokyo, Monday, July 6, 2009 - As I sat facing the Foreign Minister of Japan in a boardroom adjacent to his downtown Tokyo office last week, I felt a bead of sweat form on my forehead. Trying to look as calm and sophisticated as possible, I reached up and dabbed at it with a tissue, but it was soon replaced by others.

    The more I thought about it – more specifically, the more I thought about trying not to sweat – the damper I got. Soon, my body was a rain forest.

    Was I nervous? Perhaps, though the interview could hardly be called highly charged, given that I'd been requested to submit the questions I would ask weeks ahead of time. Foreign Minister Hirofumi Nakasone wasn't so much responding to my queries as he was reciting answers off a sheet that had been prepared for him by aides.

    It could have been the three-piece suit I was wearing. If I was ever waterboarded in Guantanamo Bay, my interrogators would quickly find out that one of the reasons I became a foreign correspondent was to avoid having to wear a suit and tie every day. My wife swears that my mood changes for the worse – and I start to sweat – as soon as I have that extra piece of cloth around my neck.

    But the biggest reason I was sweating is that it was 28 degrees inside the central Tokyo building that hosts Japan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

    Four years ago, as Japan (like nearly every other industrialized country) lagged behind the greenhouse gas emission reduction targets set out for it in the 1997 Kyoto Treaty, Environment Minister Yuriko Koike made a decision that lands somewhere between the visionary and the sadistic: Tokyo would slash energy use by decreeing that thermostats in government departments could never be set lower than 28 C.

    Businesses were urged to set the same standard and many did. By the end of the year the government had a genuine success in the fight against global warming to crow about. In 2005, the Cool Biz campaign, as it became known, was estimated to have resulted in a 460,000-tonne reduction in emissions of carbon dioxide, a number equivalent to that emitted by one million households in one month. The next year was even better: a 1.14 million-tonne reduction in carbon dioxides, equivalent to 2.5 million households for one month.

    Cool Biz also set off a sartorial revolution in Japan (one that no one bothered to inform your correspondent about) as instinctively formal businessmen and government officials were forced to ditch their jackets and ties or sweat to death. That said, at least two government officials I met last week had ties that they sheepishly pulled out of their pockets whenever the occasion demanded.

    All of which makes Japan's recent dithering over climate change a bit hard to fathom. Prime Minister Taro Aso enraged environmentalists last month by setting a new emissions-reduction target that many felt falls short of what Japan is capable of. The way Japan presented the new number – a 15 per cent cut over the next 11 years – sounded impressive enough, but put up against the Kyoto Treaty baseline of 1990 emission levels, it translates into only an 8 per cent cut from that point, or barely beyond the 6 per cent reduction that Japan and many other countries have already committed to back in 1997.

    When I asked Hirofumi Nakasone, the Foreign Minister, about the international reaction to his government's new targets, he politely retorted that Japan was still a leader in the climate-change fight and that what the world needed post-Kyoto was a new climate change pact that bound rapidly developing countries such as China and India (who got a pass in 1997) to make reductions as well. He mercifully avoided reminding me that Canada was recently named the country that has done the least to reduce emissions of any in the G-8 (Japan came fifth).

    Still, coming from the government that hosted Kyoto, Nakasone's point-the-finger-at-others defence had me wondering how serious Japan really is in 2009 about curbing carbon emissions.

    I'd hate to think I got all hot and sweaty for nothing.

    The ‘Anonymous Netizen’ declares war on Beijing


    Beijing, Thursday, June 25, 2009 - It has, until now, been a one-sided fight. For years, the censors employed by the Chinese government have launched wave after wave of attacks against China’s vibrant online community, blocking access to websites, shutting down discussions and sending police to deal in person with those who get too chirpy online for Beijing’s liking.

    The war on what are known as China’s “netizens” has escalated in recent months. First, it announced a sweeping crackdown on Internet pornography that also had the side benefit of shutting down websites better known for hosting dissident bloggers and lively political discussions. Popular sites such as YouTube, Blogspot and Wordpress were among the sites barred.

    Earlier this month, the Chinese government moved to block Twitter, and all its edgy Tweeting about the 20th anniversary of the June 4, 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre.

    The net result is infuriating. Often, I find myself swearing at the computer screen as attempts to do simple research are blocked by the net nannies. Even blogs about my beloved Edmonton Oilers often fall on the wrong side of the Great Firewall of China. Instead of gossip about this weekend’s NHL draft, all I get is the familiar notice: “The network link was interrupted while negotiating a connection. Please try again.”

    Like many Internet-savvy Chinese, I can get around the blocks using a virtual private network. But many of China’s 298 million Internet users are believed to lack the know-how, or the funds, to circumnavigate the Great Firewall.

    Pressing its case – and perhaps seeking to close the VPN loophole – Beijing recently announced that all personal computers sold in the country after July 1 would include a creepily named software package known as Green Dam Youth Escort that would spare the censors some work by blocking a lot of websites itself. Beijing has since backed down somewhat, but you get the sense that the relative freedoms many Chinese enjoy online is something the government will continue to craft ways to restrict.

    This morning, the Chinese version of Google, google.cn, was blocked, again as part of the stated effort to crack down on Internet pornography. Google responded meekly by saying it would do what it could to comply with China’s new demands, which include that it prevent Chinese surfers from accessing foreign-based websites.

    Others were not so willing to take the latest assault lying down. Within hours of the Google block, an angry cry dubbed the “2009 Declaration of the Anonymous Netizens” began circulating on the Chinese Internet.

    Here it is, in a translation provided by www.shanghaiist.com . It you want to see the original page in Chinese, click here.

    2009 Declaration of the Anonymous Netizens

    To the Internet censors of China,

    We are the Anonymous Netizens. We have seen your moves on the Internet. You have deprived your netizens of the freedom of speech. You have come to see technology as your mortal enemy. You have clouded and distorted the truth in collaboration with Party mouthpieces. You have hired commentators to create the "public opinion" you wanted to see. All these are etched into our collective memory. More recently, you forced the installation of Green Dam on the entire population and smothered Google with vicious slander. It is now clear as day: what you want is the complete control and censorship of the Internet. We hereby declare that we, the Anonymous Netizens, are going to launch our attack worldwide on your censorship system starting on July 1st, 2009.

    For the freedom of the Internet, for the advancement of Internetization, and for our rights, we are going to acquaint your censorship machine with systematic sabotage and show you just how weak the claws of your censorship really are. We are going to mark you as the First Enemy of the Internet. This is not a single battle; it is but the beginning of a war. Play with your artificial public opinion to your heart's content, for you will soon be submerged in the sea of warring netizens. Your archaic means of propaganda, your epithets borrowed straight from the Cultural Revolution era, your utter ignorance of the Internet itself - these are the tolls of your death bell. You cannot evade us, for we are everywhere. Violence of the state cannot save you - for every one of us that falls, another ten rises. We are familiar with your intrigues. You label some of us as the "vicious few" and dismiss the rest of us as unknowing accomplices; that way you can divide and rule. Go ahead and do that. In fact, we encourage you to do that; the more accustomed you are to viewing your netizens this way, the deeper your self-deception.

    You are trying in vain to halt the wheels of history. Even with your technocratic reinforcements, you will not understand the Internet in the foreseeable future. We congratulate you on your adherence to your Cultural-Revolution style conspiracy theories in your dealings with dissent; for we too get nostalgic at times. We toast to your attempts to erect a Great Wall among your netizens, for such epic folly adds spice to any historical narrative. Still, there's something we feel obliged to tell you.

    NOBODY wants to topple your regime. We take no interest whatsoever in your archaic view of state power and your stale ideological teachings. You do not understand how your grand narrative dissipated in the face of Internetization. You do not understand why appealing to statism and nationalism no longer works. You cannot break free from your own ignorance of the Internet. Your regime is not our enemy. We are not affiliated in any way with any country or organization, and we are not waging this war on any country or organization, not even on you. YOU are waging this war on yourself. YOU are digging your own grave through corruption and antagonization. We are not interested in you, destined for the sewage of history. You cannot stop the Internetization of the human race. In fact, we won't bat an eyelid even if you decide to sever the transpacific information cables in order to obtain the total control you wanted. The harder you try to roll back history, the more you strain the already taut strings, and the more destructive their final release. You are accelerating your own fall. The sun of tomorrow does not shine on those who are fearing tomorrow itself.

    We are the Anonymous Netizens. We are the sum of the world's entire online population. We are coordinated. We are dominant. We are innumerable. For every one of us that falls, another ten joins. We are omnipresent. We are omnipotent. We are unstoppable. We have no weaknesses. We utilize every weakness. We are the humanity under every mask. We are the mirrors of conscience. We are created equal. We are born free. We are an army. We do not forgive. We do not forget.

    LIBERTY LEADS THE INTERNET.

    WE'RE COMING.

    Wednesday, June 3, 2009

    TWEET! China blocks Twitter

    BEIJING – One minute, I was marveling at all the free-flowing chatter on Twitter about the looming anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre of June 4, 1989. There were links being posted to information about that day that has never been shown in China’s state-controlled media. A campaign encouraging Chinese to wear white, a colour of mourning, on Thursday was spreading tweet by tweet.

    I found myself wondering how long it would be allowed to continue.

    Then I hit the refresh button and a far-too-familiar message appeared on my computer screen: “The connection to the server was reset while the page was loading. The network link was interrupted while negotiating a connection. Please try again.”

    The Great Firewall of China has grown again. Forty-eight hours ahead of the most sensitive date on the Chinese calendar, a host of popular websites, including photo-sharing site Flickr.com, search engines Livesearch.com and Bing.com (Microsoft’s answer to Google), as well as Hotmail, are all suddenly inaccessible, in addition to Twitter.com.

    Video-sharing site YouTube and blogger portals Wordpress and Blogspot have already been blocked for weeks.

    No one needed to tell Chinese Twitterers why the crackdown on free expression happened at the start of June.

    “Isn’t it rather obvious why? Because of certain events that transpired just shy of 20 years ago,” wrote Kaiser Kuo, a well-known Beijing-based Twitterer who identifies himself as a guitarist, writer and a father of two. “Hopefully this will pass after the [expletive] sensitive date.”

    “I believe that this website is closed because of two days of later -- June 4,” chimed in Zuola, a popular Chinese blogger whose own page also falls on the wrong side of the Great Firewall, but who had still been managing to reach a wide audience through Twitter.

    Earlier this year, China announced that it now had 298 million Internet users, more than any other country. An estimated 70 million Chinese have personal blogs, forcing a government used to having complete control over the flow of information to adopt new tactics. But China’s Internet community has been learning and adapting just as fast.

    Many of the Chinese on Twitter were quickly back to tweeting as normal within minutes of the new block, logging on through virtual private networks to go around the censors. However, less web-savvy Chinese (and those unable to afford the cost of a VPN) will no longer be able to read what they write. Nor will they be able to see pictures posted on Flickr, or use their Hotmail accounts.

    The move appears part of a wider effort to censor media ahead of Thursday’s anniversary. The hard copy of the South China Morning Post that I get delivered from Hong Kong has stopped arriving in recent days, although the International Herald Tribune that gets delivered by the same company keeps coming through.

    BBC World television goes off the air each time one of their anchors tries to introduce a piece about the anniversary. They’re getting slow on the trigger finger though, I actually caught a brief glimpse of Tank Man the famous unknown rebel who stood alone in front of a row of tanks in 1989, on BBC today before the screen went blank.

    The government also seems to have moved to silence well-known dissidents ahead of the anniversary. Bao Tong, a former top Communist Party official whom I recently interviewed for The Globe and Mail was taken from his home today by security agents and reportedly driven to his home village in southern Zhejiang province. Ding Zilin, head of the Tiananmen Mothers organization (I also interviewed her for my piece this weekend about today’s generation of Chinese students), was also told to leave the city, and phones at her apartment rang busy all day.

    All this over an anniversary that many loudly insist is a non-event. "The party and the government long ago reached a conclusion about the political incident that took place at the end of the 1980s and related issues," Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang told a news conference today.

    No question there. The party and the government are decided.

    But today they don’t seem quite so certain about the people.

    Addendum: An interesting little moment developing that may say something about the futility of trying to censor the Internet in 2009.

    "China blocks Twitter" is now the No. 3 topic on Twitter, behind only "Air France" and "goodsex."

    Number 8 is the conversation this was meant to squelch: "Tiananmen." (http://twitpic.com/6gqvl)

    Change, all of a sudden, in Mongolia


    Beijing - Amid all the alarming news about North Korea’s recent nuclear test and the reflections on the Tiananmen Square massacre of 20 years ago this week, a little piece of promising news from this region got far less attention than it deserved.

    Last Sunday, June 24, some 1.1 million Mongolians, or nearly three-quarters of all eligible voters, went to the polling stations. It was the country’s sixth presidential election since the country left the Soviet Union’s orbit and embraced multi-party politics in 1990 and this time around, another milestone was reached: a candidate other than the leader of the Mongolian Peoples’ Revolutionary Party won.

    Following a hard-fought campaign, Tsakhiagiin Elbegdorj of the opposition Democratic Party won 51 per cent of the vote, ousting incumbent Nambariin Enkhbayar of the MPRP. And while the MPRP’s narrow victory in parliamentary elections a year ago had sparked deadly riots amid accusations of electoral fraud, there was no violence this time around or allegations of improprieties this time around.

    Mr. Enkhbayar, whose party has dominated Mongolia politics for nearly 90 years, gracefully conceded defeat even before the final results were officially announced. The street parties began soon afterwards.

    The vote was hailed as “free and peaceful” by the U.S. State Department. “This election is a clear demonstration of Mongolia’s continued commitment to democratic reform and represents a real achievement for such a young democracy,” spokesman Ian Kelly said in a statement. Even more remarkable was the fact that Mongolia’s democratic evolution has happened despite the fact the country is wedged between Russia and China, two giants somewhat less concerned with the will of the people.

    Those who observed the process up close were just as impressed. “The riots last year had everyone a little worried. Here was the one country in the region that was seemingly doing very well in terms of building democracy and institutions – compared with everything else going on in Asia – and suddenly maybe that wasn’t the case. This election really reassured everyone,” said Julian Dierkes, an assistant professor at the Institute of Asia Research at the University of British Columbia who was on the ground in Mongolia as a monitor last week.

    There is, unsurprisingly, a whiff of big-power politics in all this. Though Mongolia was never formally part of the old USSR, its political scene is very similar to that in former republics like Ukraine, Georgia and parts of Central Asia, with one party (in Mongolia’s case, the MPRP) seen as aligned with Russia and the other (Elbegdorj’s Democratic Party) closer to the United States. The early analysis is that the Mongolia’s new president will try and decrease the country’s reliance on Moscow by upping ties with the U.S., Europe and Canada. (China is also increasingly a player in Mongolia’s business scene, but until now has played only a background role in the political struggle.) All that aside, no one but the Mongolians cast their vote last week, and they now appear to have chosen a Democratic Party president who will have veto power over an MPRP-controlled parliament. Now all they have to do is work together to deliver on voters’ hopes that they can lead the country out of endemic poverty.

    Despite opening its mining sector and signing lucrative deals with international firms, one-third of Mongolians live below the poverty line.


    p.s. Speaking of Tiananmen Square, I’m watching BBC World in The Globe and Mail’s Beijing office as I type this. Each hour, when the anchor tries to introduce the piece BBC has done for the 20th anniversary of June 4, 1989, the screen here goes blank. I assume the piece they don’t want people to see is this one.

    6+4 20


    Beijing, May 20, 2009 – In today’s China, it’s often difficult to gauge how ordinary people feel about the Tiananmen Square massacre of 20 years ago. As the anniversary approaches, are the gory details of that day – and the fact the government still suppresses them – relevant in a country that looks nothing like the China of 1989?

    Pro-democracy activists, all but a very brave few of them speaking from outside the country, insist that June 4, 1989 remains the blackest day in recent Chinese history. To them, the wound Chinese society suffered then won’t be anywhere near healed until the events of 1989 are brought before the public eye and those responsible for the bloodshed are made accountable.

    When I recently interviewed Bao Tong – the top aide to the ousted Communist Party secretary Zhao Ziyang, and the only senior Communist official jailed for his role in 1989 (for standing with the students) – he certainly shared that point of view. He told me that Deng Xiaoping’s decision to use force to disperse the student protestors who had occupied Beijing’s central square to back their demands for change “caused all the [political] stagnation and backwardness in China over the past 20 years.” You can read the whole article here.

    Similarly, Ding Zilin of the Tiananmen Mothers committee has been waging a long and lonely fight to force the government to investigate what happened on June 4, the day that her 17-year-old son Jiang Jielian was shot in the back and killed near Tiananmen Square. Her group has meticulously collected a list of 195 names of those killed during the crackdown, and she believes many more than that actually died that day.

    But many other, often louder, voices say that Tiananmen Square no longer matters. They argue China’s astonishing economic progress in the past 20 years proves that Deng Xiaoping made the right decision in cracking down and preventing China from falling into the type of chaos that hit Eastern Europe and the former USSR after the collapse of Communism there. To them, it’s only Westerners with an “anti-Chinese” agenda who keep the Tiananmen issue alive.

    (The government’s own changing view is nicely documented by Nicholas Bequelin of Human Rights Watch The most recent assessment given by a government spokesperson is “the government has already reached the verdict on 'June Fourth,' and the stability of the country was the foremost priority.”)

    Rarely are ordinary Chinese voices heard on this topic. In large part, that’s because the government has made the topic taboo. It’s never mentioned in the state-controlled media, and Tiananmen-related websites on the Internet are routinely blocked by censors. People like Mr. Bao Tong and Ms. Ding are kept under heavy surveillance, with their phones monitored and their interaction with other Chinese strictly controlled. The events of that day are never discussed in polite conversation - it's almost as if they never happened.

    Which is why I was fascinated by a little phenomenon that the Chinese edition of Google, google.cn, (otherwise best known for happily helping build the Great Firewall of China) inadvertently recorded. Take a look at this link. It’s a snapshot, sent my way by a Chinese Twitter pal of the top 10 most-searched items on google.cn for Tuesday, May 19, 2009.

    The No. 2 most-searched term, and recent holder of the No. 1 spot, is the apocryphal string “6+4 20.” It looks like bad arithmetic, but it's in fact a reference to the sixth month, fourth day, and the 20th anniversary of June 4, 1989.

    The Net Nannies would have to be at the top of their game to spot that one. Plug it into google.cn, and Google returns a load of sites that are normally blocked inside China, including (at the time I’m writing this, anyway) the Chinese-language Wikipedia entry on the massacre, which contains the famous photo of a man staring down a row of tanks and repeats assertions that thousands of people died on and around the square that day.

    Apparently, a whole lot of ordinary Chinese aren’t quite convinced that Tiananmen Square no longer matters.

    Wednesday, April 15, 2009

    Thailand's stress-relieving street battle

    Bangkok: There were just two of us on the empty street. Me, and the guy with the gun.

    We were in the centre of the Thai capital, in broad daylight, but it couldn't have been more deserted. All the shops on Nakhon Sawan Road had their metal shutters pulled down after 24 hours of violent protests in the city. The road behind me was blocked by a burned-out bus that red-shirted protesters had positioned to keep the army out of their encampment.

    There was nowhere for me to run. My assailant trained his weapon on me and let loose a jet of water straight into my chest.

    He then collapsed into giggles like the six-year-old he was.

    After days of escalating tension in Bangkok as the army faced off with supporters of former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, a hint of normalcy returned to the usually jovial Thai capital yesterday.

    The state of emergency imposed by Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva is still in effect, and there are still soldiers on the streets, but most of Thais moved on to the important business of celebrating Songkran, the lunar new year.

    That means heading out into the sweltering hot streets (it was 33 C today) with a water gun and an attitude. Buddha images are “bathed,” and so is anyone who walks into splashing range.

    Many Thais appear to believe that extra karmic points are awarded to those who douse foreigners who walk around lost in thought, or women of any nationality foolish enough to wear white. Motorcyclists are another favourite target.

    The clashes on Monday between the Red Shirts and the army (which left at least two people dead and more than 100 injured) led some to dub this holiday the “Black Songkran.” But Thais are a resilient people, having endured a staggering 18 coups in the past eight decades, as well as countless popular protests.

    Even at the height of the violence this week, much of Bangkok carried on as if nothing abnormal was taking place. In the famous backpacking district around Khao San Road, it was as though this troubled place called “Thailand” that the newspapers were writing about was somewhere far, far away from the merry stretch of bars and restaurants.

    Nonetheless, the city emitted a collective sigh of relief when the leaders of the Red Shirts called off their protest on Tuesday, putting at least a temporary end to the crisis. Maybe, just maybe, it will be a happy new year after all.

    Me, I'm taking my cue from the kid and going shopping for a Super-Soaker.

    Or at least a rain slicker.

    Friday, April 10, 2009

    What colour for Chisinau?



    Tbilisi: As I write this, students have just been evicted from the parliament building in the former Soviet republic of Moldova, a day after storming it to show their despair at the idea of four more years of Communist rule there.

    I’ve seen a few such popular revolts in my time (Georgia, Ukraine, Lebanon), and happen to have spent last week hopping through the post-revolutionary capitals of Kiev and Tbilisi on vacation.

    The simple conclusion: these uprisings, even when they’re successful, rarely mark a wholesale change from the past.

    In Ukraine, tents still occupy part of the Maidan (otherwise known as Independence Square), just as they have almost continuously since the Orange Revolution in late 2004. But the politicians the world fell in love with back then – the brave Viktor Yushchenko, with his face bearing the scars of a poisoning attack, and the glamorous Yulia Tymoshenko, with her golden Princess Leia-like braids – quickly turned on each other after the people put them in power, and politics quickly returned to the dirty old status quo in Kiev.

    What looked like a popular revolution back then (albeit one with plenty of outside support) turned out to be more about one clan of oligarchs ousting the other.

    My closest Ukrainian friends, who five years ago were heavily politicized and energized by what had happened on the streets of Kiev, were disheartened and interested in talking about anything but Ukrainian politics when we had dinner last week. On the Maidan, you can still buy KGB T-shirts and Lenin paraphernalia, but not one vendor bothers to sell anything orange anymore. There’s just no interest, not even from tourists.

    Other than a single column in front of the main post office – which has been encased in plexiglass to protect the revolutionary graffiti painted there five years ago – it’s as if the Orange Revolution never happened.

    Georgia, despite last year’s disheartening war with Russia, provides more reason for optimism. Tbilisi in 2009 is a completely different place than the city I first visited back in the fall of 2002.

    Collapsing buildings in the historic Old Town have been replaced by sidewalk cafés and jazz bars. The old Intourist hotel – which for more than a decade had been overflowing with refugees from the early 1990s war in Abkhazia – is now an almost-complete five-star Radisson. (The refugees were given compensation to move elsewhere in town.)

    But, like Moldova, the country is held back because large chunks of Georgian territory are de facto Russian protectorates. Last summer’s war over South Ossetia proved a disastrous miscalculation by President Mikhail Saakashvili (that's him looking alternately frazzled and amorous in the posters I saw in downtown Tbilisi), and now tens of thousands of Georgians are back on the streets demanding that he step down, just as he forced Eduard Shevardnadze aside back in 2003. (Check out reporting from the scene by my longtime friend Michael Mainville of Dowling, Ont. – now the Caucasus bureau chief for Agence France-Presse.)

    Neither the Rose Revolution in Georgia nor the Orange Revolution in Ukraine brought the people on the streets the change they were seeking. The change in governments only began a whole new cycle of instability and overt Russian intervention in both countries.

    That’s something the angry students in Chisinau should probably keep in mind.

    Tuesday, April 7, 2009

    Moscow redux


    Moscow: The first thing that strikes me upon returning to Moscow is the new sense of order in the Russian capital.

    In my book The New Cold War: Revolutions, Rigged Elections and Pipeline Politics in the Former Soviet Union, I wrote about my concerns that Vladimir Putin's obsession with stability and the "power vertical" (stabilnost and vertikalny vlast) were populist code for eliminating such annoyances as free elections and independent media.

    That's proven to be true, but it must be remembered that a wide majority of Russians continue to back Putin's policies (and those of his chosen successor as president, Dmitriy Medvedev, who in many ways still remains his mentor's underling). With the benefit of some time away, it's easier to see some of the reasons why. Simply put, Moscow is a safer and more prosperous place to live in 2009 than it was when Vladimir Vladimirovich succeeded Boris Yeltsin nine years ago.

    A few little things that struck me:

    * There is now an official taxi stand at the still-dilapidated Sherevmetyevo-2 airport that charges you a pre-set rate for trips to the city centre (i.e., no more arguing with bandits who will wait all day for a foreigner rich and stupid enough to pay their price).

    * I wasn't stopped once, during more than a week in Moscow and St. Petersburg, by police demanding to see our dokumenti and looking to extract bribes for invented problems with said documents, something that used to happen on a regular basis. Perhaps I look less like a Chechen like I used to. Or perhaps the crackdown on corruption has reached the police force. The only time we were stopped was when our cab driver was actually caught on a radar gun going over the speed limit. Yes, police in Moscow now use radar guns and care how fast you drive.

    * The touts who used to harass tourists lining up to see the Kremlin and the Hermitage museum have all disappeared. (Though St. Petersburg is still an easy place to get your pocket picked. My wife and I witnessed a woman lose her camera on the Nevskiy Prospekt).

    * An overall sense that Moscow, in particular, is a less chaotic place than it used to be, certainly than it was when we first arrived in late 2001.

    * This Putin lookalike on Red Square thought I would pay 1,000 rubles (about $33) to have my picture taken with him. This one cost nothing.


    That said, Russia is also one of the countries that has been worst hit by the economic crisis thus far (GDP shrank 7 per cent in the first quarter of 2009 ), and Moscow remains one of the most expensive cities in the world.

    As in China, many in Russia have been willing to accept some restrictions on personal freedoms so long as the economy kept growing and their lives continued to improve. If that deal is broken, will the popularity of President Medvedev and Prime Minister Putin also take a hit?

    The past few days have seen some of the largest anti-government rallies in recent years (such as the Communist Party gathering yesterday in Nizhny Novgorod) and heavy-handed government responses (such as a recent decision to dispatch Interior Ministry troops from Moscow to break up anti-government protests in the Pacific Ocean port of Vladivostok) -- the latter being a sure sign of government nervousness.

    A test of where things are heading could come in the unexpected form of the mayoral elections for the city of Sochi, which is scheduled to host the 2014 Winter Olympics. Some 26 people threw their hats into the ring, including leading opposition figure Boris Nemtsov (briefly deputy prime minister during the Yeltsin years), celebrity ballerina Anastasia Volochkova (famously canned by the Bolshoi Theatre for being overweight), billionaire businessman Alexander Lebedev and acting mayor Anatoly Pakhomov, who has the all-important backing of Putin's United Russia party.

    Nemtsov has already had ammonia thrown at him by unknown assailants dressed in women's clothing and Volochkova has apparently now been disqualified for leaving her birthday off one of the documents she submitted with her registration papers. A porn star and a prominent freemason have also joined the race. It's enough to make a former Moscow correspondent tear up with nostalgia.

    Despite the ludicrous start to the campaign, there is a serious side: whoever emerges from the crowded field on April 26 will get a chance to promote their version of Russia on the world stage in five years time. Given the way elections are run these days in Russia, the safe money is always on the Kremlin's man.

    Monday, March 30, 2009


    Beijing: The man in the bathtub is Lai Changxing. He's reading a newspaper that says “Canada Real Estate News” and “Job Service Centre.” This is how China's Southern Weekly newspaper – and many ordinary Chinese – envision life in Canada for China's most wanted man, someone accused by Beijing of heading a $10-billion smuggling empire before fleeing to Canada in 1999.

    With press like this, it's hard to believe sometimes, but there was a time – barely a decade ago – when this country's leaders referred to Canada as China's “best friend in the world.”

    That statement, made by then-Premier Zhu Rongji during one of those ballyhooed “Team Canada” business promotion trips of the Jean Chrétien era, was perhaps an overstatement made by a very polite host, but there was a bit of substance to it at the time. Canadian-Chinese friendship dates back to the fabled Norman Bethune's battlefield medical work during the Sino-Japanese war and has accelerated since 1970 when Canada recognized the People's Republic, two years before Richard Nixon dared travel to China. The Globe and Mail even played a role, opening the first Western newspaper office here in 1959, back when it was still called Peking. Most importantly, there are 1.4 million Canadians of Chinese descent.

    The Chrétien era was arguably the warmest stretch to date, in part because Canada's 20th prime minister was personal friends with former Chinese leader Jiang Zemin. In 2005, someone named Paul Martin took it a step further by signing a “strategic partnership” agreement with visiting Chinese President Hu Jintao and promising to double trade within 10 years.

    It took less than four years for all that warmth to almost completely disappear. The Stephen Harper era has been catastrophic in terms of Ottawa-Beijing ties, to the point that Canada has become almost irrelevant here. (Charles Burton, who once served as a Canadian diplomat in China, wrote a devastating critique of what's wrong that's well worth a read. Or check out Colin Freeze's report that appeared in The Globe and Mail.)

    In a sentence that summarized much of what Mr. Burton laid out over 25 pages, the Canada-China Business council recently warned that “Canada, despite its historic ties to China, is not seizing all of the opportunities China affords to investors and businesses.”

    The two biggest irritants were Canada's decision to award honourary citizenship to the Dalai Lama (which was a good idea) and Mr. Harper's decision to skip last year's Summer Olympics in Beijing (which wasn't).

    When asked why he takes stands that fly in the face of Canada's business interests in the world's largest market, Mr. Harper claimed that he doesn't want to sacrifice “important Canadian values” to the “almighty dollar.” Fine. And if Mr. Harper was going around the world defending human rights anywhere they were in danger, his hard-line China policy might make sense. But given his government's unquestioning support of Israel during its recent assault on the Gaza Strip (to pick one example that I have some familiarity with), it's clear that he's not going to win a Nobel Peace Prize any time soon.

    The problem Mr. Harper and his coterie have is they see the world as divided up into “good” countries (like the United States, Taiwan and Israel) and “bad ones” including China and much of the Muslim world. We take tough stands about Tiananmen Square and Tibet, but don't bat an eyelash at Guantanamo Bay or Gaza. If we had a consistent, moral foreign policy based on “Canadian principles,” the tough stand vis-à-vis Beijing would make sense. But we don't, and it doesn't.

    The fact is that only the pro-Israel lobby spends more time and money on lobbying Canadian parliamentarians than pro-Taiwan groups. (Taiwan was the top destination for freebie trips by MPs in 2007, and second to Israel last year), and so here we are. And Canada's relationship with the world's next superpower is in tatters.

    The truth is that we're in serious danger becoming a “bad” country in China's eyes as well. Our Prime Minister boycotted their coming-out party last summer, when even George W. Bush and Nicholas Sarkozy found ways to attend either the opening or closing ceremonies of the Olympics. We grant refuge to their most wanted man (albeit because the aforementioned Mr. Zhu repeatedly declared that Mr. Lai deserved to be executed, which is pretty much a death sentence in a country where courts usually do as their told). And we harangue them about domestic issues from across the ocean, rather than in quiet face-to-face talks where Mr. Harper speaking his mind might actually have some impact.

    The good news is that there are some inside the Canadian government that get it. We're in the process of opening six new trade missions in China, which should finally give us a diplomatic and commercial presence here worthy of the world's third-biggest – and fastest-growing – economy. And, for better or for worse, Trade Minister Stockwell Day is planning a visit here next month.

    That's all well and good. But the word I'm getting from various sources is that the “face”-conscious Chinese leadership is going to hold a grudge until Mr. Harper repents and makes a full-on official visit to Beijing. Mr. Harper has suggested that such a trip is on the horizon.

    I hate to agree with the Toronto Star, but for the sake of Canada's interests, and reputation, in China, the sooner he gets here, the better.

    The case of the Impeccable underwear


    Beijing: It was one of the most bizarre new stories in recent weeks, a quasi-clash between the American and Chinese navies in the South China Sea.

    The incident, according to the various accounts, ranged at times between the very dangerous and the farcical, with five Chinese boats coming so close to the USNS Impeccable – waving Chinese flags and demanding that the American ship leave the area – that the Impeccable resorted to using fire hoses to force their pursuers back. Undaunted, the Chinese sailors stripped to their underwear and kept up their dangerous game of chicken.

    American officials have condemned the Chinese actions and portrayed the incident as an example of growing Chinese aggressiveness, and many news organizations used the story as an opportunity to discuss China's plans to eventually build its first aircraft carrier.

    But looking at a map of where the incident occurred (BBC has a nice one), I find myself wondering how the U.S. navy would respond to a Chinese spy ship floating so close to its territorial waters. (The Impeccable is an unarmed surveillance craft that specializes in tracking submarines. As noted on the Danwei website, the Impeccable also looks “like something in which a James Bond villain would plan world domination.”)

    The South China Sea is a mess of duelling claims, with China, Taiwan, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Vietnam all declaring sovereignty over parts of it. It's also one of the most strategically important bodies of water anywhere, with some 10 million barrels of oil passing through every day aboard tankers. Underneath lies even greater treasure – somewhere 7.7 billion barrels and 28 billion barrels of crude oil. Hence the competing claims and the U.S. navy's interest in patrolling the region.

    The area that the Impeccable was operating in was actually just outside of China's territorial waters, but within what is known under international law as its exclusive economic zone. So the American ship had a right to be there, though the law (to me) seems vaguer on whether foreign nations can park active military vessels in another country's economic zone.

    Most Chinese are cheering on their navy's new willingness to give even the shirts off their backs for their country. “Let's send some ships to the American exclusive economic zone a few times to see the reaction of the U.S.,” a Shandong resident posted on the popular sina.com web portal. “We must control the deteriorating situation in the South China Sea by force,” chimed in blogger Wangfengchuizhou.

    This may not go away soon. While Obama and Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi met last week in Washington to defuse tension over the Impeccable incident, the brouhaha escalated again shortly thereafter, when the Filipino parliament passed a law claiming sovereignty over parts of the Spratly Island chain that are also claimed by China. China responded by announcing it was sending its biggest and fastest patrol boat to the area, while the Impeccable is still floating around, now accompanied by a destroyer.