Generation 40s – 四十世代

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Aung San Suu Kyi: from Myanmar’s icon of democracy to collaborator in the Rohingya Muslim genocide

CommentInsight & OpinionAsia


David I. Steinberg says Aung San Suu Kyi may care more about her country than her international reputation, but her dismissal of atrocities against the Rohingya may haunt Myanmar in the future
It “could have been handled better” must be the most anaemic, dismissive public comment by a national leader concerning one of the world’s most disastrous contemporary tragedies. Aung San Suu Kyi, state counsellor (virtual prime minister) of Myanmar and the civilian leader of that state, on an official visit to Vietnam, publicly dismissed the atrocities committed by Myanmese troops on this hapless, stateless Rohingya Muslim minority, some 700,000 of whom fled into Bangladesh and an estimated 10,000 died in what may be described as a pogrom. Mass rape and the execution of children have been documented.This from the Nobel laureate who has been held up in the Western world as the icon of democracy as she struggled against a military regime while under house arrest for some 15 years.It is true, as she has said, that she did not want to be regarded as a democratic icon, but rather as a politician trying to move her country along an unknown path to a form of democratic state. But she has basked in this positive international spotlight and received numerous international awards for her courage and commitment to democracy.But she has, thus far, dismissed what the United States and the United Nations have called ethnic cleansing, and what some have regarded as a form of genocide. Her inattention and even misleading public statements concerning the plight of the Rohingya have destroyed her international reputation, diminished foreign Western investment and tourism, and cast the reputation of her country into a deep morass from which escape may be long and arduous.

Compounding this horrific flight from democratic norms has been her insistence that two Burmese Reuters journalists have been properly tried and convicted for seven years in jail for reporting on one terrible incident involving military actions against the Rohingya.

Claiming they were properly convicted under a colonial-era official secrets act, she has showed that all her previous hortatory exhortations to adhere to the “rule of law” were essentially meaningless. One official indicated that the two reporters were set up by the military through planted material. The courts are not independent.

Whatever her private views of the Rohingya – and her support of their state repression is widely supported by the majority Buddhist population – Suu Kyi must try to maintain a delicate balance between her essentially civilian legislature and the military, which controls all state avenues of coercion and administration below the cabinet level.

If she is too critical of the military, then there are legal means under the constitution for the military to declare martial law and enact a reversion to even stricter control. The extensive reforms and liberalisation that have taken place under the previous administration of president Thein Sein  were both needed and broadly welcomed internally and externally, but the defining issue of the state in the West is now the tragic treatment of the Rohingya, not the progress that had been made under the previous administration.

The US and other Western states have strongly and rightly denounced the government for its actions and attitudes. This has angered the government, or at least those elements controlled by the military and the population, which is avowedly anti-Muslim in general and which regards the Rohingya as Bengalis who should not be in the country, while dampening relations with the US.

Into this breach of confidence have stepped the Chinese, who have supported the military’s version of events and refused to criticise their actions, perhaps because they fear unrest among the Muslim Uygur in Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region.

The military have claimed their response was to a security threat launched by a few ill-armed Muslim insurgents. The response by the government was inappropriate and completely out of proportion to the perceived problem. But the atrocities may well incite more coordinated and lethal external Muslim reactions. A couple of decades ago, Osama bin Laden complained about repression of Muslims in Myanmar.

There is no easy solution to this problem, given public sentiment in Myanmar. The Rohingya before the present debacle existed in the most constrained and controlled environment, without the basic elements of a reasonable existence. Even if they were to return, conditions would be abominable.

We may be blamed for simple condemnation and no effective action, but Myanmar’s military are the essential culprits and, alas, Aung San Suu Kyi is an unindicted co-conspirator.

David I. Steinberg is distinguished professor of Asian studies emeritus at Georgetown University

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Andy Chan’s Hong Kong independence hot air will blow over – if we stop fanning the flames

CommentInsight & OpinionHong Kong
Michael Chugani says there is nothing to be gained from giving the Hong Kong National Party convenor undue attention or from clamouring for the Foreign Correspondents’ Club that hosted his talk to be evicted


Let’s have tough national security legislation that jails anyone who uses the word “independence”. And let’s kick the Foreign Correspondents’ Club out of its historic building for fomenting sedition. Turn it into a shopping centre instead. Beijing loyalists want the FCC out and Article 23 legislation in, never mind that such a double whammy could spark another local uprising and global outrage. 

Not that they care. China’s growing clout has emboldened its leaders to scorn international opinion. Do they not understand that the more they attack independence activist Andy Chan Ho-tin, the more prominence they heap on him?

They should learn from Executive Council convenor Bernard Chan. Last week, he told the media, after taking a question about Andy Chan, that he would no longer discuss him because doing so would keep the spotlight on the activist.

Another pro-government Executive Council member, legislative councillor Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee, told me in a TV interview that evicting the FCC for hosting a speech by Andy Chan would attract damaging media attention globally. Both Bernard Chan and Ip understand that we should let this firestorm fizzle rather than fan it.

How to knock the same sense into other Beijing loyalists baying for blood? They must understand that evicting the FCC and rushing Article 23 would be like using a megaphone to tell the world Hong Kong is muzzling the media just because of a nonsensical speech by a nobody.

I fully understand that Beijing is spooked by the independence movement taking root after the 2014 Occupy movement and the Mong Kok riot. But Chan lives in another universe. His National Party is a fly without wings. No one takes him seriously except his handful of delusional followers. Even pan-democrats were appalled by his letter asking US President Donald Trump to expel Hong Kong and China from the World Trade Organisation.

Instead of attacking the FCC, Beijing loyalists should thank it for letting Chan make a fool of himself with an independence vision that can only be described as cartoonish. Even Beijing loyalist Maria Tam Wai-chu admits that current laws make it impossible to prosecute him for his speech. Yet the Beijing lobby is behaving as if he has put national security under imminent threat.

Chan couldn’t have been prosecuted even under the 2003 Article 23 legislation that the government killed after half a million Hongkongers protested. Does the Beijing lobby want something harsher still this time around just to cage kooks like Chan?

Is it even possible to draft laws that would specifically ban the kind of non-violent FCC speech Chan gave, or to ban organisations from hosting such speeches? I am no legal expert but I can’t see how. If we push the envelope to make it happen, what’s to stop demands for schools and the media to ban discussions or debates about independence? Surely, that puts our way of life on a slippery slope.

Some, including former Hong Kong chief executive Leung Chun-ying, want the government to tender out the FCC building when its lease expires in 2023. But, seriously, how profitable would it be for anyone to pay market rent for a historic building that requires expensive upkeep?

It’s too small for a shopping centre. No name-brand store would touch it after what happened to the one on Pedder Street, which paid such an exorbitant rent it couldn’t sustain operations there. The sparse pedestrian traffic in the area makes it unappealing anyway.

The government could lease it to yet another rowdy bar since it’s next door to Lan Kwai Fong. Or to a club for the super-rich, further highlighting Hong Kong’s wealth gap. Maybe we could let the historic building stand empty as a reminder it conspired to stir seditious activities. Tour groups could be shown the exact spot where Chan delivered his separatist speech.

Yes, I’m being flippant, but it’s time we let this storm blow over. Keeping it brewing only raises Chan’s profile. It’s time, too, for the media not to take him seriously, since what he says is nonsense anyway.

Michael Chugani is a Hong Kong journalist and TV show host

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Trade war raises the spectre of a ‘China collapse’, and Beijing should worry

CommentInsight & OpinionUnited States


Deng Yuwen warns that the impact on China’s economy could destabilise a country already dealing with the twin problems of low public trust and unresponsive government bureaucracy. But although change is inevitable, an eruption of public anger is not



The “China collapse theory” was popular in the international community 10 years ago. However, with China becoming the world’s second-largest economy and exerting a growing international influence, despite the chorus of doom, such talk has died down.

Yet, taking the long view, 2018 is shaping up to be a turning point for China. Today the country faces serious internal and external challenges, and is in the midst of a social transformation.

Given the Chinese government’s ability to maintain stability, the transformation is unlikely to be a radical, dramatic rupture. Rather, the change may be cumulative. Like the proverbial frog in a pot of water that’s gradually brought to a boil, by the time people realise a transformation has happened, it will already be in place.

Looking at the changes that have quietly taken place in Chinese society this year, it is obvious that a transformation is gestating.

Firstly, people’s trust in the authorities has fallen to freezing point, whatever their political leaning. The recent Changsheng vaccine scandal illustrates this development.

Substandard vaccines directly affect the health and safety of children. When a government cannot even guarantee children’s basic safety, public trust in government is an unaffordable luxury.

Food and drug safety scandals are not new in China. What’s different this time is that people’s expectations of the government have changed. For five years, the current government has led a robust campaign to root out corruption in the government and party. Although it has yet to bring tangible improvements in people’s livelihoods, it nevertheless raised expectations that it could at least ensure a safer, more secure life for most. This was its promise.

However, the Changsheng scandal made clear that more than five years of the most severe social controls could not even get a vaccine problem under control. The Chinese people, especially growing children, still live in an unsafe environment. So why do they need this unprecedented level of social regulation?

Public antipathy has grown more widespread. After similar scandals in the past, the far left in Chinese society would typically voice their unconditional support for the authorities. This time, most have maintained a rare silence, even if they have not directly criticised the government.

When the public condemns the authorities in unison, when even the most basic trust is lost, it is a sign that a regime has lost its legitimacy. For this to happen when the authorities are trying to forge a “new era”, alarm bells should ring.

Secondly, the Chinese governance system has lost its ability to perceive and respond to social discontent. Individuals within the government, including high-ranking officials, are aware of the maladies afflicting society, of people’s discontent, and of the desperate need for a cure – to scrape the poison off the bone, so to speak.

But as an organisation, the government appears to have lost this sensitivity. It has become very slow to react to public dissatisfaction, much less respond effectively.

In game theory, this is explained by the “prisoner’s dilemma”, in which rational individuals who make decisions for their own benefit collectively lead to a poorer outcome for all, including themselves. And an organisation that allows this to happen will have failed as a system.

In China’s case, the polarisation of the leadership in recent years, leading to a high concentration of power in the hands of one person, has exacerbated the problem of the follow-the-leader phenomenon that existed in the past. Information is not properly disseminated within the system, and most officials become passive and just wait for orders from their superior.

Take the vaccine scandal. Even after news of the irregularities led to a public outcry, local authorities were still sitting on their hands. The highest leader of the land had to give instructions for action before the government machinery jumped to tackle the problem, holding meetings and launching investigations.

After 40 years of economic reforms, Chinese society has amassed too many contradictions. Public dissatisfaction with the authorities is well known. Even the most desensitised person could feel it. Yet the government appears insensitive to it. Because the bureaucrats in the system don’t want to take responsibility, all they can do is push the responsibility to others. System-wide, inertia dominates.

If this inability to effectively respond to social grievances persists, the system will slowly lose all its vitality.

Thirdly, the economic impact of the trade war with the United States is likely to exacerbate the crisis in Chinese society.

So far, the tariffs imposed on Chinese goods have caused China’s stock and currency markets to fluctuate and public pessimism to spread. Even after the initial shock wears off, the tariffs’ impact on China’s employment, prices and financial system will be very real.

Depending on how the conflict develops, we may see large-scale business closures, a rise in unemployment and serious inflation. If the economy sinks into a recession, living standards may fall sharply.

Since reforms began, there have been highs and lows in the Chinese growth story. Western sanctions imposed after China’s crackdown on the pro-democracy protests of June 1989 led to some hardships, but people tolerated them. The difficult days of the Cultural Revolution were not so far behind then, and living standards weren’t high to begin with.

Things are different now. Many of those born in the 1970s and after have not gone through the poverty their forefathers experienced. If living standards fall sharply for them and their family because of the trade war, how will they adapt and will there be a chain reaction? Some scholars have warned that the trade war might trigger an eruption of public anger.

Chinese society is poised for change. For the authorities, 2018 will be a big test of their ability to govern. Whether they pass or fail, one thing is clear: an overall restlessness is appearing in society and people are crying out for changes to the system.

Without such changes, the government leadership will only be able to delay the outbreak of a crisis if they handle the situation well under the current constraints, or they will accelerate the transformation if they mishandle the situation.

Deng Yuwen is an independent political commentator and international relations scholar. This article is translated from Chinese

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China’s bullying of Taiwan highlights its helplessness against the drift of Taiwanese society

CommentInsight & OpinionUnited States


J. Michael Cole says that Beijing’s hopes for a gradual reunification of Taiwan with the mainland have been frustrated, not by Tsai Ing-wen and the DPP, but by Taiwanese society’s growing drift from mainland China. Unable to admit this, China has resorted to heavy-handed tactics that is pushing the Taiwanese further away


The election of Tsai Ing-wen of the Taiwan-centric Democratic Progressive Party in January 2016 marked the end of a phase in cross-strait relations when Beijing still believed in the possibility of winning the hearts and minds of the Taiwanese through “goodwill” and economic incentives. Since then, Beijing has embraced a strategy that seeks to corner, isolate and punish Taiwan for its intransigence on the unification question.

Although many would ascribe that change in attitude to the 2016 elections and blame the Tsai administration’s refusal to acknowledge the so-called “1992 consensus” for the souring relations, this reckoning actually occurred earlier – two years earlier, in 2014, when the Sunflower student movement derailed the partial rapprochement that had prevailed since 2008 under former president Ma Ying-jeou of the Kuomintang. More than an incident over a particular trade agreement, the movement epitomised a society’s refusal to associate too closely with authoritarian China, a reality that not only contributed to Tsai’s victory but also to the KMT’s dismissal of its initial candidate for the presidency, who was regarded as too ideologically close to Beijing – even for the blue camp’s taste.

Unwilling to acknowledge this fact (at least publicly), the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has conveniently attributed the downturn in relations to Tsai, her DPP and the deadlock on the “1992 consensus”. It has constantly depicted them as a reckless minority in Taiwan, a posse of extremists who refuse to embrace what Chinese President Xi Jinping has described as “historical trends” and the “coordinates of history”.

Xi and his top cadres probably know better. But they cannot admit it, as this would confirm the fact that Beijing’s Taiwan strategy over the years, especially under Xi, has miscarried. Not only have the sticks and carrots failed, closer contact in fact pushed the Taiwanese in the opposite direction – towards a deepening identification with Taiwan and the liberal democratic values that define it.

Demonstrators shout slogans in front of the Presidential Office in Taipei on March 30, 2014. The Sunflower student movement of spring 2014, in which thousands of young demonstrators marched in the streets to protest against the controversial trade pact with mainland China, may have been a turning point anticipating not only the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party’s return to power, but even the pro-unification Kuomintang’s diminishing interest in cooperating with Beijing. Photo: Reuters

Although Beijing will not admit it, Zhu Chenghu, a major general in the People’s Liberation Army and arguably one of China’s most astute commentators, slipped earlier this year when he lamented that even the KMT was no longer committed to unification. This is a reality that those of us on the ground in Taiwan with access to both sides of the political spectrum have understood since several years ago.

The fact that the annual CCP-KMT forum probably won’t take place this year, and that Xi now only meets with elders like Lien Chan, whose relevance in Taiwanese politics has greatly diminished over the years, confirms that Beijing’s long-standing reliance on political parties to achieve its objectives has irreversibly come to an end. Even before Ma stepped down in May 2016, Beijing had begun bypassing the KMT and the central government in Taipei, a clear sign that Taiwan’s democracy, which both sides in Taiwan’s political spectrum have internalised, stood in the way of Beijing’s aspirations.

Thus disarmed, bereft of partners and unable to admit that its approach has failed, Beijing has blamed the chill on the Tsai administration. Out of frustration, it has decided to punish Taiwan by eroding its international space and assailing symbols of Taiwan’s statehood. No more sweeteners or “goodwill”: the aim is to pound Taiwan via a strategy of incessant assault on all fronts – military drills, poaching of official diplomatic allies, blocking Taiwan’s efforts to join multilateral institutions, sparking a brain drain through its “31 incentives”, and eroding Taiwan’s visibility in business, cultural, academic and even sporting circles.

Responsibility for implementing that strategy rests with officials at all levels of the Chinese government and within the party. Punitive measures are abetted by a strident nationalism cultivated by the Communist Party and a set of rules, approved by Xi, that permit – and seem to encourage – their utilisation.

Beijing’s open-ended strategy encourages interpretation: officials and party cadres, whether in China or at embassies and consulates worldwide, find themselves guessing what is expected of them. This, in turn, encourages proactivity and escalation, which arguably explains why many of the coercive measures used against Taiwan in recent years – such as preventing an ensemble of young Taiwanese indigenous choristers from holding a scheduled performance in Vienna, or humiliating a teenaged Taiwanese pop star, to name just two recent incidents – have been tone deaf and counterproductive.

Rather than break the will of the Taiwanese, attacks on young Taiwanese or forcing the cancellation of an international youth sporting event in Taiwan have instead further alienated them from China and convinced them that the Communist Party does not have their welfare at heart. A regime that targets young children cannot be seen as benevolent, let alone one that one would wish to be ruled by.

Such behaviour has also created incentives and a sense of urgency for Taiwan and its allies worldwide to strengthen their ties – the opposite of Beijing’s aim to isolate Taiwan. (Though, arguably, Beijing’s assault has had some success in widening a split within Taiwan’s green camp, with the “deep greens” accusing Tsai of being too soft on China and calling on her to initiate a referendum on name rectification, a move that would give Beijing ammunition for further punitive action.)

Xi is largely responsible for this state of affairs. Although it is hard to imagine his direct involvement in the formulation of all the punitive actions taken against Taiwan, he is nevertheless the one who has set the tone and provided the “legal” instruments to implement them. The ultra-nationalism he has encouraged makes it nearly impossible for him to de-escalate, or reverse policy, once he is presented with a fait accompli through the actions of his underlings. That would constitute a loss of face and exhibit a sign of weakness that Xi simply cannot afford.

Therefore, when overzealous officials decide it is a good idea to prevent young Taiwanese singers from performing in Europe, however damaging such incidents might be to China’s reputation, accusing fingers point back to Xi himself. For it is he who has allowed this to become Beijing’s “strategy”, a strategy that is now spinning out of control and cannot but ensure that the Taiwanese see even less appeal in a political union with China.

J. Michael Cole is a Taipei-based senior fellow with the Taiwan Studies programme, University of Nottingham, UK, research associate with the French Centre for Research on Contemporary China, and chief editor of Taiwan Sentinel