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China’s Belt and Road pinpoints fundamental issues of our times

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Based on remarks at the RSIS book launch of Alan Chong and Quang Minh Pham (eds), Critical Reflections on China’s Belt and Road Initiative, Palgrave MacMillan, 2020

Political scientists Alan Chong and Quang Min Pham bring with their edited volume originality as well as dimensions and perspectives to the discussion about the Belt and Road that are highly relevant but often either unrecognized or underemphasized.

The book is about much more than the material aspects of China’s Belt and Road Initiative. In fact, various chapter authors use the Belt and Road to look at perhaps the most fundamental issue of our times: how does one build a global world order and societies that are inclusive, cohesive and capable of managing interests of all stakeholders as well as political, cultural, ethnic and religious differences in ways that all are recognized without prejudice and/or discrimination?

In doing so, the book introduces a moral category into policy and policy analysis. That is an important and commendable effort even if it may be a hard sell in an increasingly polarized world in which prejudice and bias and policies that flow from it have gained new legitimacy and become mainstream in various parts of the world.

It allows for the introduction of considerations that are fundamental to managing multiple current crises that have been accentuated by the pandemic and its economic fallout.

One of those is put forward in the chapter of the late international affairs scholar Lily Ling in which she writes about the need for a global agenda to take the requirements of ordinary people into account to ensure a more inclusive world. The question is how does one achieve that.

It is a question that permeates multiple aspects of our individual and collective lives.

If the last decade was one of defiance and dissent, of a breakdown in confidence in political leadership and systems and of greater authoritarianism and autocracy to retain power, this new decade, given the pandemic and economic crisis, is likely to be a continuation of the last one on steroids.

One only has to look at continued Arab popular revolts, Black Lives Matter, the anti-lockdown protests, and the popularity of conspiracy theories like QAnon. All of this is compounded by decreasing trust in US leadership and the efficacy of Western concepts of governance, democratic backsliding, and the handling of the pandemic in America and Europe.

Mr. Chong conceptualizes in his chapter perceived tolerance along ancient silk roads as stemming from what he terms ‘mercantile harmony’ among peoples and elites rather than states. It was rooted, in Mr. Chong’s mind, in empathy, a sense of spirituality and a mercantile approach towards the exchange of ideas and goods.

It was also informed by the solidarity of travellers shaped by the fact that they encountered similar obstacles and threats on their journeys. And it stems from the connectivity needs of empires that built cities and roads to retain their control that Mr. Chong projects as civilization builders.

There may be an element of idealization of the degree of tolerance along the ancient Silk Road and the assertion that the new silk road is everything that the old silk road was not. But the notion of the role of non-state, civil society actors is key to the overall quest for inclusiveness.

So is the fact that historic travellers like Fa-Hsien, Marco Polo and Ibn Battuta grappled with the very same issues that today’s world is attempting to tackle: the parameters of human interaction, virtue, diversity, governance, materialism, and the role of religion.

The emphasis on a moral category and the comparison of the ancient and the new Silk Road frames a key theme in the book: the issue of the China-centric, top down nature of the Belt and Road. Vietnamese China scholar Trinh Van Dinh positions the Belt and Road as the latest iteration of China’s history of the pioneering of connectivity as the reflection of a regime that is at the peak of its power.

Mr. Van Dinh sees the Belt and Road as the vehicle that will potentially revitalize Chinese economic development. It is a proposition on which the jury is still out in a world that could split into two distinct camps.

It is a world in which China brings much to the table but that is also populated by black and grey swans, some of which are of China’s own making. These include the favouring of Chinese companies and labour in Belt and Road projects, although to be fair Western development aid often operated on the same principle. But it also includes China’s brutal response to perceived threats posed by ethnic and religious minorities.

That may be one arena where the failure to fully consider the global breakdown in confidence in leadership and systems comes to haunt China. That is potentially no more the case than in the greater Middle East that stretches from the Atlantic coast of Africa into the Chinese province of Xinjiang.

Its not an aspect that figures explicitly in political scientist Manouchehr Dorraj’s contribution to the book on China’s relationship with Iran as well as Saudi Arabia but lingers in the background of his perceptive analysis of anticipated changes in the region’s lay of the land.

Mr. Dooraj focusses on three aspects that are important as one watches developments unfold: The impact of shifts in the energy mix away from oil coupled with the emergence of significant reserves beyond the Middle East, Iran’s geopolitical advantages compared to Saudi Arabia when it comes to the architecture of the Belt and Road, and the fact that China is recognizing that refraining from political engagement is no longer viable.

However, China’s emphasis on state-to-state relationships could prove to be a risky strategy assuming that the Middle East will retain its prominence in protests that seek to ensure better governance and more inclusive social and economic policies.

That takes on added significance given that potential energy shifts could reduce Chinese dependence on Middle Eastern energy as well as repeated assertions by Chinese intellectuals that call into question the relative importance of China’s economic engagement in the region as well as its ranking in Chinese strategic thinking.

The implications of the book’s partial emphasis on what Mr. Chong terms philosophical and cultural dialogue reach far beyond the book’s confines. They go to issues that many of us are grappling with but have no good answers.

In his conclusion, Mr. Chong suggests that in order to manage different value systems and interests one has to water down the Westphalian dogma of treating national interests as zero-sum conceptions.

One just has to look at the pandemic the world is trying to come to grips with, the need for a global health care governance that can confront future pandemics, and the world’s environmental crisis to realize the relevance of former Singaporean diplomat and public intellectual Kishore Mahbubani’s description of the nation state system as a boat with 193 cabins and cabin administrators but no captain at the helm.

Mr. Chong looks for answers in the experience of ancient Silk Road travellers. That may be a standard that a Belt and Road managed by an autocratic Chinese leadership that is anything but inclusive would at best struggle to meet.

Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title, Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario and three forthcoming books, Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africaas well as Creating Frankenstein: The Saudi Export of Ultra-conservatism and China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom.

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East Asia

The Mystery of China’s Internment Camps: Genocide of Uighurs

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Human rights abuse is not an alien concept to the world, especially over the ghastly events posted through the two decades into this century. Whether it’s the mutiny in Syria leading to the rise of ISIS; dismembering the regional population, or the massacre of the Rohingya community at the hands of the draconian military of Myanmar; trudging the Muslim minority under the most inhuman conditions known to mankind in the name of ethnic cleansing. Even the lockdown of innocent Kashmiris, under over-the-top scrutiny and extremist mindset of the BJP-championed government of India, has been the highlight in the discussions heated in the Human Rights Councils around the globe. However, none of the human rights violations have been so systematically concealed that the very existence of a genocide is rendered a rumour for years and continues to challenge the authenticity of the news coverage obtained in today’s modernised world. The genocide of the Uighur Muslim Community in China is an accurate example of such a pogrom; the community being deliberated to renounce their faith and being subject to servile conditions, incarcerated in controversial camps under the prevailing communism in China.

Xinjiang is the extreme western region of China and enjoys the entitlement of being the largest autonomous region of the mainland yet still being a notch lesser in degree from Beijing. However, the self-governance status is as superficial and contrasting to the status of Taiwan; little to no discretion awarded to the region yet still hailed as autarchic. The Uighur community decent from the Turkic ethnicity and make up about 50% of the total population of Xinjiang, a tally totalling to about 11 million people. China was accused in the preceding years of intense surveillance of the Uighur Muslims eventually escalating to the point of being taken captive in internment camps; being forced to learn mandarin, pushed to relinquish their religion and even forcing Uighur women to marry non-Uighur men in a systematic attempt to erase the community from the region in a gruesome exercise that could only be described as an ‘extermination’ as per the definitions of The United Nations.

China’s position over the state-run genocide has stayed intricate over the years, since the initial reports of the internment camps breezed to light through international media and local activists. The Chinese officials claim that the world outside doesn’t realise the true essence of the situation in Xinjiang. The Chinese authorities have labelled the genocide as ‘Defence’ and ‘Retaliation’ against the specific groups of Uighur militants operating to bombard China with rampaging violence pivoted on the grounds of ethnic separation in the region; a movement sighted by China Communist Party as an effort to gain independence from China stemming from the brief campaign launched back in the 20th century before the communal population submitted to Communist China in 1949. China has repeatedly denied the accusations of ‘Ethnic cleansing’ and has continued to push the narrative of conducting ‘Vocational Camps’ for willing participants to fight against the militants instead of running internment torture camps to decimate the entire community.

While the world has remained dormant over the excessive brutality within the borders of the People’s Republic, the apparent heat of the genocide is pervading over China under the communist ideology posed by President Xi Jinping. His extremist comments have incited a crunch against not only the Uighur community but the Muslims residing all over China, being forced against fasting in Ramadan and even being mocked in daily prayers and for wearing veils. The recent movement in Xinjiang is projected as a programmed skit to promote the Han Chinese community in the industrial flourish of the region, thereby settling the non-natives and skimming the Uighur population gradually. The United Kingdom has continually threatened sanctions over China and even the rising Biden administration in US has addressed the genocidal tendencies within Xinjiang on the account of utter violence and discrimination. However, no substantial efforts have been taken to even probe into the situation let alone resolve it. As ethnic and religious violence continue to rage under the arching communist regime of China, a little more than critical comments and envisioning threatening policies is required from the global community to relieve Uighur’s from their misery.

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Nanjing tragedy – massacre or “incident”?

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On December 15, China was marking the 80th anniversary of the Nanjing massacre by Japanese troops.

In Japan, they avoid using the term “massacre,” however, so when covering the tragic event the local media referred to it as the “Nanjing incident.”

In December 1937, at the height of the second Sino-Japanese war, Japanese forces entered the city of Nanjing, then the capital of Nationalist China, which had been used by the Kuomintang government as its headquarters since 1927. The Chiang Kai-shek government had earlier decided to move the bulk of its forces out of the city, leaving behind just a small garrison. All that time, the citizens were kept in the dark about those plans. Moreover, they were prevented from escaping, even though there still was plenty of time to evacuate the civilian population. As to the Japanese, in Nanjing they didn’t encounter the serious resistance they had faced in the battle for Shanghai.  And still, in addition to mass-scale looting and torching of houses, they staged a real bloodbath killing thousands of unarmed city residents and POWs. Judging by numerous accounts of that massacre, including by a handful of Europeans who remained in the city and were spared by the Japanese, who agreed to place them in a special “safety zone,” it seems that the city was being overrun not by soldiers but a giant crowd of characters from American movies about sadistic serial killers. The elaborate torture and murder of pregnant Chinese women was especially shocking.

The reasons for such behavior by the Japanese military still defy a clear explanation. One thing is clear, though: Japanese militarism as a phenomenon is characterized by the complete loss by politicians of control over the military and of officials closely associated with it. That being said, senior officers, unlike the “field generals,” were often unable to prevent the atrocities committed by the lower ranks that quickly became widespread. Unlike in the Navy, the system of personnel training in the Imperial Army allowed uneducated conscripts from peasant families to rise to the rank of officers. A chance to feel oneself as part of the “military caste” and traditions of the samurai, which their ancestors could not even dream of, might be a reason why many of those new officers began to “revel” in their own power. At the same time, medieval customs, like testing the sword’s sharpness on unarmed people, and ritual cannibalism were coming back. Japanese newspapers of that period wrote about two officers in Nanjing who competed who of them would chop off more heads, thus executing hundreds of people.

It was not until the close of World War II that the events in Nanjing attracted international attention, as even the Kuomintang propaganda had been keeping mum about it. The Japanese militarists committed countless other crimes, but for them the Nanjing massacre carried a special meaning, not because of the number of victims, but because of the reputational risks it posed for the imperial family, since one of their members (Prince Yasuhiko of the Asaka clan) was the one who personally supervised the capture of Nanjing. After the war he was not put on trial and enjoyed immunity granted to members of the imperial family, with the full consent by the US occupation authorities.

In 1948, the case of the Nanjing massacre was considered by the International Military Tribunal for the Far East, which handed down two death sentences. The tribunal determined that more than 200,000 people were killed in Nanjing. A year before that a series of “smaller courts” held in China, including in Nanjing, put the death toll at 300,000.

In post-war Japan, the “Nanjing Incident” remains a much-disputed issue giving rise to all sorts of conspiracy theories concerning not only the historical past, but also present-day relations between Japan and China.

These include attempts by the so-called “revisionists” to question both the methods of counting the victims (with just 40,000 mentioned as the lower limit) and the very fact of the Nanjing killings.

Meanwhile, a movement that emerged in Japan during the Cold War period, led by representatives of the country’s academic community, people of the arts and members of the teachers union, challenged the way historical facts, including the Nanjing massacre, were presented in school textbooks.  However, their activities started to die out during the 1990s, when the  nationalists, opposed to the “masochistic view” of history, began to play a bigger role in Japanese politics.

The famous Japanese writer Haruki Murakami took a lot of angry flak from the extreme right-wingers when in one of his books, published in 2017, he had one of the characters reflecting on the question about “the difference between 100,000 and 400,000” of people killed.

Getting back to the present, there is one question that is begging for an answer. Tokyo’s policy towards China was one of the biggest achievements of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who stepped down in September 2020. Amid a  deep crisis that Japanese-Chinese relations found themselves in in 2012, due to the inability of the Democratic Party, which was in power before him, to stand up to the nationalists’ populist actions, during his eight-year premiership Shinzo Abe managed if not to make them friendly, then at least to restore “normality.” Moreover, in solving this difficult task, he neither made any concessions on key issues for Tokyo, nor irritated Washington, which had its own plans for Beijing. At the same time, Shinzo Abe continues to be viewed in East Asia and also in the West as a “hawk,” whose statements and even some symbolic gestures clearly smack of revisionism. On one occasion, for example, he was photographed at the controls of a Japanese-designed fighter with “731” painted on its fuselage, evoking clear associations with the Japanese Unit 731, which was testing bacteriological weapons on humans in Manchuria. In 2013, Abe visited the Yasukuni Shrine, drawing negative reaction not only from Japan’s regional neighbors, but also from Washington. How come a politician with such views was able to “make friends” with China?

There is a circumstance here that has not been lost on the Japanese media.  Since 2018, [Chinese President] Xi Jinping has not attended events marking the anniversaries of the Nanjing tragedy, although it was he who in 2014 proposed to mark the Day of Remembrance for the Victims of the Nanjing Massacre. This time round he did not show up either for the December 15 event (due to the pandemic, as was officially explained). On December 13, Japan’s state broadcaster NHK reported that amid a further deepening of its confrontation with the United States, China intends to demonstrate its interest in strengthening ties, primarily economic ones, with Japan. Therefore, the mourning ceremony was organized so as not to harm the current status of Sino-Japanese relations.

However, the gradual “unfreezing” of relations between the two countries began long before Donald Trump declared a sanctions war on China. It was Shinzo Abe who, speaking in parliament back in 2014, invited Beijing to resume the dialogue between the two countries’ leaders. In that same year, a group of prominent Japanese politicians, among them the former Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda, paid a visit to China. When Fukuda’s father, Takeo, was prime minister during the late 1970s, Japan signed the Treaty of Peace and Friendship with China, and his surname has since been a symbol of a “reset” in bilateral relations. This time the elderly politician was once again used as a “fire engine.” In the same year, Shinzo Abe and Xi Jinping met on the sidelines of the APEC summit in Beijing, and their meeting in Hangzhou, China, during the September 2016 G20 summit is now seen as the beginning of the active phase of mending fences between the two nations.

During the Trump presidency, this process only accelerated, much to the benefit of both Beijing and Tokyo, each of which had serious problems in relations with Washington. Notably, as the Sino-Japanese Treaty of Peace and Friendship was signed in 1978, each year ending with “8” could bring new headways in bilateral ties. This tradition is especially important for China, where ceremony plays such a big role in politics. During Shinzo Abe’s first visit to Beijing in October 2018, the sides agreed to launch over 50 infrastructure cooperation projects, which experts were quick to hail as the dawn of a new era in Japanese-Chinese relations. In fact, many of these joint projects later turned out to be just for show, and were subsequently shelved. Still, when Shinzo Abe met his Chinese counterpart at the 2019 G20 summit in Osaka, they agreed that Xi Jinping would pay an official visit to Japan in the spring of 2020, but the visit was postponed due to the pandemic. The epidemic could also have been the reason why Xi Jinping refrained from attending this year’s memorial event in Nanjing.

As for Shinzo Abe’s revisionist views, they are probably seen in Beijing as mainly intended for domestic consumption, in contrast to the pro-American nationalism of another charismatic Japanese politician, former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi. Unlike Koizumi, Shinzo Abe was more of a “nationalist-pragmatist,” focused on solving problems pertaining to the national interests of Japan.

During his first news conference after taking office, Japan’s new Prime Minister, Yoshihide Suga, said that he would like to build stable relations with neighboring countries, including China and Russia.  Still, chances are high that the subject of the Nanjing massacre may return to the bilateral agenda since the age-old traditions of historical memory will not let the onetime foes forget this tragic event.

From our partner International Affairs

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South Korea’s Potential for Global Influence is Weakened by its Mistreatment of Women

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In recent years, the Republic of Korea has become a pop culture juggernaut.

Eight years after “Gangnam Style” went global, K-Pop still reigns supreme with boy band BTS topping charts and issuing IPOs. Bong Joon-ho’s film “Parasite” swept last year’s Oscars, kimchi now has UNESCO cultural heritage status, while Samsung smartphones are used all over the world, second only to the mighty Apple.

The global appeal of the Korean Wave, known as “Hallyu,” recently attracted the attention of a report from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, which argued that this rising soft power could in turn boost South Korea’s global influence and drive diplomatic leadership on a broad range of transnational issues, from climate change to public health to democracy promotion.

This all sounds great, but there remains a nagging problem. Despite its flourishing culture, there have also been a string of scandals highlighting the plight of women in the country, who facing everything from inequality to workplace discrimination and rampant sexual harassment.

By any measure, the problem is significant and costly to the country’s interests. According to a 2019 report by the World Economic Forum, South Korea ranks 124 out of 149 countries in the world in terms of economic opportunity for women, while another report cites the highest gender pay gap among OECD nations at 35%. This low level of female participation in the economy is not only a drag on future GDP growth, but also coincides with a parallel mental health crisis: suicides among Korean women in their 20s have jumped by more than 40 percent in the last year, at the same time that male deaths are in decline.

Mistreatment of women in Korea may be a feature, not a bug, of the system. A recent string of sexual abuse scandals has reached the highest levels of the country’s political elites.

This past July, the country was shocked to wake up to the news that the popular Mayor of Seoul Park Won-soon had committed suicide when accusations of sexual assault against his secretary were made public. Mayor Park had built his image as stalwart champion of women’s rights, and yet, the secretary, who has been threatened and blamed following the suicide, says that she “felt defenseless and weak before the immense power” of the Mayor.

Months later, we are discovering the very people meant to protect the victims instead act to protect the alleged perpetrators. Congresswoman Nam In-soon, one of South Korea’s highest profile women’s rights activists, is being called on to resign after it was revealed that she leaked news of the sexual harassment investigation into Mayor Park. Another member of congress, Yoon Mee-hyang, was forced out of the ruling Democratic Party after facing criminal charges of embezzlement from the “comfort women” charity she used to direct, which raised money for survivors of World War II military brothels.

Before Mayor Park’s suicide and the comfort women scandal, there were many others. Last year, South Chungcheong Province Governor Ahn Hee-jung was convicted on nine counts of rape and sentenced to three and half years in prison. Mayor of Busan Oh Keo-Don was forced to resign following the assault accusation. Ahn Tae-geun, a former senior prosecutor whose case had become symbolic for the #MeToo movement, had his conviction overturned earlier this year.

These patterns stand in stark contrast to the image the government seeks to project.

In public speeches, President Moon Jae-in frequently advocates in defense of women’s rights in speeches and interviews. Speaking at the last UN General Assembly, he declared a commitment to inclusiveness and reducing inequalities. The ruling DPK has long associated itself with rights activists, and has made gestures toward combating misconduct and mistreatment of women – but critics say they aren’t doing enough. A headline on CNN last summer went so far as to call out the hypocrisy: “South Korea’s President says he’s a feminist. Three of his allies have been accused of sex crimes.”

Despite numerous protest movements and well supported marches, Korea has not yet experienced a breakthrough #MeToo moment. According to media testimonials, many women continue to face significant obstacles to advance in their careers. Even after 70,000 women marched last year to protest the prolific abuse of spy cams set up in bathrooms and changing rooms, patriarchal attitudes continue. This month, guidelines published on an official government website advising pregnant women to cook, clean, and to lose weight for their husbands after childbirth caused a social media uproar.

This is a deeply concerning problem. As highlighted by the Carnegie report, Korea’s role as a “middle power” in a such a volatile region would be highly welcome, and not just on things like climate and coronavirus vaccine distribution, but also their crucial role in containing North Korea’s nuclear ambitions and holding firm in the shadow of China’s expanding authoritarian reach.

Some Korean groups have advocated internationally against gender-based violence, which is undoubtedly a very worthy cause. But until the Moon government can get serious about tackling these inequalities and abuses at home, its efforts to project influence abroad will fail to meet potential.

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