Tag Archives: Beijing

Quoted by AFP on Biden visit, and a pic of his motorcade

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden's motorcade drives west for his meetings with President Xi Jinping at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on Dec. 4, 2013. (Photo: Graham Webster)

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden’s motorcade drives west for his meetings with President Xi Jinping at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on Dec. 4, 2013. (Photo: Graham Webster)

[Cross-posted from gwbstr.com]

As U.S. Vice President Joe Biden visits East Asia, a lot of the media focus has centered around the recent Chinese announcement of an air defense identification zone (ADIZ) in the East China Sea, a move apparently directed at Japan and the two countries’ territorial dispute over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands. In an AFP story yesterday by Carol Huang, I am quoted cautioning that this long-planned Biden visit is not just about the most recent flare up.

Biden and Chinese leaders — he is also expected to meet Xi and Premier Li Keqiang — were unlikely to let ADIZ friction derail broader efforts to strengthen relations, said Graham Webster, a Beijing-based fellow at the Yale Law School China Centre specialising in US-Chinese ties.

“I don’t think it will be the main topic of conversation on this trip despite the recent news,” he said.

The overarching goal from such senior meetings was “about continuing the spirit of high-level cooperation and bilateral work in the common interest”, he added. [Full Story]

I was also an attendee at the Council for Security Cooperation in the Asia Pacific (CSCAP) conference in Beijing this week (where Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin said alliances in the Asia-Pacific—implying the U.S. hub-and-spoke relationships with Japan, South Korea, the Philippines,  Australia, etc.—are “an outdated concept in international relations”).

On the way out of the conference, I noticed a police presence that was, it turned out, preparing for Biden himself to cruise by (above).

Former Obama Asia advisor: Media's US-China rivalry articles 'represent lazy journalism'

Jeffrey Bader, a former senior director for East Asia at the U.S. National Security Council during the Obama administration and a key Obama advisor, spoke at Beijing’s Tsinghua University Tuesday, almost a year after he appeared the last time. While a lot of what he said was not especially new if you follow Bader, he closed his speech with a fairly sharp line on the U.S. news media’s handling of Barack Obama’s decision to cancel a trip to to Southeast Asia because of the domestic political crisis in the United States.

Specifically, Bader took issue with the tired frame that assumes a U.S. absence is a victory for China:

We all read a steady drumbeat of articles and media of both sides focusing on U.S.–China rivalry. They are not wrong, but they are seriously unbalanced and, I believe, frankly represent lazy journalism. Nevertheless, perceptions affect reality. If, for example, western analysts interpret Obama’s failure to attend APEC and the East Asia Summit as a victory for China—and I read many articles describing these events as “Xi wins, Obama loses,” as if it were a football game—then I can understand why Chinese analysts respond by imposing a similar zero-sum framework of analysis on U.S. and Chinese behavior.

I hope sophisticated Chinese and Americans will transcend this kind of interpretation. In fact, not everything, indeed not most things that the U.S. and China do are aimed at the other. We each have substantial interests and relations including with other countries in Asia without regard to any rivalry for influence.

This analyst agrees with the former White House advisor.

A few other notes:

  • Bader noted there has been a significant increase in U.S.–China military-to-military exchange, cooperation, and  participation in international exchanges. My far less informed observations confirm this impression.
  • He divided U.S.–China issues into four realms: global issues, Asia-Pacific issues, global hotspots, and purely bilateral issues. Of these, he said, Asia-Pacific issues such as the territorial disputes in the East and South China Seas are likely to pose the greatest challenge in the coming years.
  • Increased nationalism throughout the region, he said, is worrisome and creates conditions where concessions are impossible in territorial disputes. Accordingly, Bader said he likes China’s proposal of joint development of undersea resources in the South China Sea, since it sets the sovereignty issue aside and sidesteps arguments over exclusive economic zones that may radiate from some land features under UNCLOS.
  • “Diaoyu islands doesn’t matter,” Bader said in a refreshingly frank and lighthearted discussion of the sticky Senkaku/Diaoyu island dispute between China and Japan. He continued: “If there were global warming—and there’d have to be a lot of global warming, because they’re pretty high—but if there were somehow miraculously global warming and these islands disappeared, no one would care. But China and Japan would still have issues.” The root of Bader’s argument on Japan and China is that the island dispute was nearly absent for decades before coming up, and that Sino-Japanese relations have hit an unusual rough spot that allows the island dispute to flare up.

Shameless plug:

  • I wrote here about Bader’s dislike for the term “pivot,” which he brought up again today.

Among China expats today, echoes of Orwell's time in Burma?

At the recommendation of a friend in Beijing, I’ve been reading George Orwell’s Burmese Days. Coincidentally, Jane Perlez of The New York Times recently traveled to the real town Orwell was stationed in that inspires the novel’s setting. She calls the book “a scathing portrait of the imperious attitudes of the British, from this former colonial outpost on the banks of the mighty Irrawaddy River.” Some of those imperious attitudes sound strikingly similar to, if far more strident than, the complaints and judgments of some expatriates in Beijing.

NYT picture of the house Orwell lived in. Click for story and full size.

NYT picture of the house Orwell lived in. Click for story and full size.


One of the central tensions of the novel, which I haven’t finished (and so neither did I read the end of Perlez’s story, where she got back to the plot), is that one Englishman, named Flory, is unusually sympathetic to the Burmese, while the rest of the European population is savagely racist and dismissive. This passage pretty much sums it up.

There was an uneasiness between them, ill-defined and yet often verging upon quarrels. When two people, one of whom has lived long in the country while the other is a newcomer, are thrown together, it is inevitable that the first should act as cicerone to the second. Elizabeth, during these days, was making her first acquaintance with Burma; it was Flory, naturally, who acted as her interpreter, explaining this, commenting upon that. And the things he said, or the way he said them, provoked in her a vague yet deep disagreement. For she perceived that Flory, when he spoke of the ‘natives’, spoke nearly always in favour of them. He was forever praising Burmese customs and the Burmese character; he even went so far as to contrast them favourably with the English. It disquieted her. After all, natives were natives—interesting, no doubt, but finally only a ‘subject’ people, an inferior people with black faces. His attitude was a little too tolerant. Nor had he grasped, yet, in what way he was antagonising her. He so wanted her to love Burma as he loved it, not to look at it with the dull, incurious eyes of a memsahib! He had forgotten that most people can be at ease in a foreign country only when they are disparaging the inhabitants.

The life of an American or European expatriate in Beijing is categorically different. We are not colonial authorities, nor is urban China so terribly exotic compared to other global cities. But the tension is real between people who seek only to complain and disparage, and those who seek to understand and engage. That tension can frequently be recognized even within individuals. What today’s reality in Beijing shares with Orwell’s account is a language of separation.

In this second passage, Orwell laments the assault on a European’s own dignity that occurs when he or she is bound by colonial social norms. In the plot, Flory had decided to betray a non-European friend, because to stand with him would have led to great problems for him among the Europeans.

It is a stifling, stultifying world in which to live. It is a world in which every word and every thought is censored. In England it is hard even to imagine such an atmosphere. Everyone is free in England; we sell our souls in public and buy them back in private, among our friends. But even friendship can hardly exist when every white man is a cog in the wheels of despotism. Free speech is unthinkable. All other kinds of freedom are permitted. You are free to be a drunkard, an idler, a coward, a backbiter, a fornicator; but you are not free to think for yourself. Your opinion on every subject of any conceivable importance is dictated for you by the pukka sahibs‘ [a term for Europeans as a ruling class in the British empire] code.

Again, things are very different. But is there a degree of groupthink among China watchers? Are there times when taking the side of the Chinese people or government in a political argument is a kind of taboo? I think so.

Back to the novel.

Now you can compare Beijing PM 2.5 air quality readings on your phone

It just so happens that today is not one of the more beautiful days in Beijing. After a week of generally glorious fall weather, with exceedingly clear air (except once or twice), the national holiday is over and whatever process churns up the smog has resumed.

I’m not complaining. I haven’t been here long enough to get worked up about air quality. But it did lead me to check the China Air iPhone app that delivers official Chinese government pollution readings alongside the point-source reading from the U.S. embassy. And I noticed something new.

Before*, you would see only PM 2.5 (particle matter under 2.5 micrometers in diameter) for the U.S. embassy reading, and only PM 10 (10 micrometers), sulfur dioxide, and nitrogen dioxide. The app gives indicies derived from each source’s standards, but the data weren’t directly comparable. These pollutants don’t necessarily come in tandem or in proportion.

Now, however, you can compare PM 2.5 readings from both sources. In the case of a few minutes ago, the U.S. was reading more PM 2.5 than the local government. These still aren’t comparable measures: Beijing creates a number based on many sampling stations, whereas the U.S. has one location. But there’s something to compare. If you trust the measurements from the government, which seems fairly reasonable to me in this case, you could learn that the U.S. embassy is in an unusually polluted part of town right now.

One superficial reason to take the new Chinese data seriously is that a government official has said we should not expect air to be super clean for quite some time. According to a Xinhua article (in Chinese), the city’s 20 new PM 2.5 sensors are expected to find particulate content over their standard of 150 mg/m^3 quite regularly for the foreseeable future. (“从北京整体空气质量水平看,PM2.5浓度值超标在很长一段时间内会经常出现.”)

Seems to me this new data has been around in some forms for some months, but this is the first direct comparison I saw.

*I note that the app’s iTunes page shows data for PM 2.5, but it had been “–” since I installed the app.

Back to Beijing with a new collaboration with 88 Bar

[Cross-post from gwbstr.com]

This week marks my long-planned return to life based in Beijing. My arrival was met with two days of absolutely beautiful weather and clear air (obviously the result of my arrival and not the half-day downpour that preceded my landing).

And today, I have my first contribution to the lively and inquisitive 八八吧 :: 88 Bar, a group blog with strengths in design and technology. I fit in as the lone politico, but I’m happy to be there hawking my wares. Academia and the job search have a way of pigeon-holing a person into single-sector analysis, but some academics and some employers demand boundary-crossing work. I’ve always gravitated toward the latter, and my collaborators at 88 Bar—including long-time friend and finally collaborator Tricia Wang—are prime examples of how boundaries can be crossed.

My post today recasts some of the best insights in monitoring Chinese politics, taken from a footnote in a policy analysis. Some comments by Alice L. Miller at Stanford’s Hoover Institution give a solid method for assessing the authoritativeness of various government-affiliated statements in Chinese media. Jason Li, one of the 88 Bar OG‘s, put my schematic scribbles into a great visual form. I look forward to whatever comes next over there.

Check it out.

For now, if you’re in Beijing, drop me a line.