Ground Control to Chairman Hu

A picture always tells an interesting story and the picture above tells a momentous story of national accomplishment for China and its space program. Central Military Commission Chairman Hu Jintao, jaundiced but with his liver spots airbrushed out, is making a telephone call to the brave taikonauts, who are aboard the Shenzhou-9 space craft and conducting the docking mission with the Taigong-1 orbiter. The picture of Chairman Hu, clearly in the lobby of a bank, juxtaposed with the picture of the Chinese taikonauts, clearly in a meth lab in the Utah desert, reminds me of a few things. First, I should not snark about people attempting to accomplish great things or a national leader who is extremely proud of their accomplishment. The snark would be reduced if only I could get PLA Daily to write a better English language article (sorry, it won’t let me link directly to the article). Since I can’t link you directly to it, I will quote a few passages and comment on the photos.

The article begins by setting the stage with Chairman Hu at the Beijing Aerospace Control Center surrounded by key leaders. Not until the fourth line written does it get into the topic of conversation.

“You have spent nearly 10 days in space, we care about you. How are you feeling?” asked the president.

Maybe open with the above stilted line instead of making sure all the senior leadership had their attendance blocks checked? Isn’t this about those taikonauts and China’s success, and not about political strap-hangers getting in on the lauds? Maybe the chairman could ask Xinhua News Wire (the original source for the story) to better translate his quote and give it a little more flare and make it not sound so forced. And so it goes, the article continues, saying that “China has completely grasped space rendezvous and docking technologies.” I would say let’s maybe limit that claim to the team that put those taikonauts in space and the space men themselves. I wouldn’t want the guy hawking pirated DVDs to conduct a space rendezvous operation. But, ok,  you are proud and this is China’s victory dance in the end zone.

Further reading the article, it appears that the mission commander, Jing Haipeng, and Chairman Hu are merely repeating scripted mantras back and forth.

Jing said that all work was going smoothly, the manual docking had been completed successfully and the crew members were doing scientific experiments as planned.

Hu praised the astronauts for their excellent performance in China’s first manual rendezvous and docking mission, which showcased the country’s full command of space docking technologies.

So, again, it makes me think of a few things. First, loosen up, talk about how you are scared as shit of flying and that those guys are totally b.a. for getting in a rocket and flying to the heavens. Second, let’s get some new publicity folks in there and quit airbrushing your photo. It’s becoming a parody.

Much better. Some liver spots, a normal, healthyish complexion and a little camera time for all the engineers and rocket scientists who put a lot of hard work into this mission.  Ok, so what’s up with the different colored phones? Why is the phone to space white? What do the red phones do? What kind of call plan do you get on that space phone? I’ve been looking to put in a landline in my house and maybe China Telecom or Huawei is the way to go. Anyway, congratulations to the space men (and woman) who have brought about another successful space mission for Chairman Hu, his coterie, China and all those other people working on it. Congrats!

Light the Funeral Pyre

I don’t feel mournful for the impending doom for traditional news media.  In fact, I really would like to celebrate it.  However, the Globe and Mail has a piece about the contrasting growth of the English daily newspaper the China Daily which generally reads like a Chinese foreign ministry press release.  It’s come a long way from the days when I was a student in Beijing and it was the only English language reading material outside of my proxy server to evade the Great Firewall (GFW). Side bar, I thought I was rather clever back then.  I don’t know how VPNs work now, but I used my dorm room’s phone connection to dial into my AOL account (because in 2000 I still had dial-up at home) and it somehow got past the GFW.  Sad, though it may be, China Daily may have a little bit of a surge compared to the availability of USA Today or some other tanking American broadsheet. But, the question becomes is that where people throughout the world are getting their news?  The Globe and Mail article claims that, as a result of traditional Western media creating a paywall to supplement ad revenue, they will not be able to compete with the free China Daily circulating at the Dubai Holiday Inn or some other choice locale.  Apparently, the Chinese government’s media mouth pieces are throwing cash and people, correspondents and coverage where the West has downsized.  Personally, I think they are throwing money away for naught.  Old boy’s reference to the documentary Page One should be the first indicator.  That documentary came out over a year ago.  The mourning period is over.  Newspapers are dead.  Not literally, but their age is passed or passing.  Sure, the Chinese may end up dominating the traditional news media market one day.  But who cares.  Most people I know (meaning ‘Mericans) get their news from The Daily Show or The Colbert Report.

The really fascinating change that I can relay to my readers is that in the twelve years or so since I first studied in China, there is an explosion of blogs related to China that didn’t exist when I was a student at Peking University.  I actually started a blog then to cover my time there because I was too lazy to write home.  Because of the super slow internet connection and the urge to go out and hit the bars at night, it only lasted for about 5 or 6 postings.  At the time, I couldn’t conceive of any other blogs out there covering politics, culture or even economic news.  Now there is a ton of them that are well done and connected to bigger media activities.  And Twitter…well let’s not even begin there.  So, a lot’s changed and I’m happy about that.  Sad that you will have to read the Chinese made blah rather than American made blah the next time you are stuck at a HoJos for your industry’s annual conference.  Maybe instead you can use it to dry out your loafers, and pull out your smart phone and read some real news.

God, Let’s Hope This Is Not Fake!

By that, I mean, let’s hope that the Shenzhou 9 mission and China’s space program is not fake. When I say fake, I mean fake like the urban legend about the 100 year old bloke who believed that the lunar landing in 1969 was filmed in the Arizona desert. Or better yet, fake like the experience of Victor Pelevin’s amazing novel Omon Ra.

Most importantly is the realization that there is another country attempting to compete with a space program out there in the world. Does this mean anything for the United States? Probably, but it may be more mystical (like Pelevin’s novel) than political.  Like the boxer from Sarangani Province, Filipino Manny Pacquiao, we need a real competitor to put up a champion performance.

And like Pacquiao’s last fight, the match may be rigged against us, but that should make us fight a little harder. Hopefully, China isn’t like Floyd Mayweather, full of trash talking and no gusto for a real contest.

So, let’s train hard. Keep out of the gambling halls. Show up for mass.  Wait a minute, I think I was giving advice to the Pacman. The US has to focus real hard on something that isn’t as ephemeral like summits or vague like counter-insurgency. This might actually require us to think strategically long past the budgets and the partisan silliness of the day. Gird yourselves, throw back some Hammer gel, loosen up and let’s get in the ring and take a few swings without the focus mitts. Ok, enough boxing analogies. I need to get back to the Lab.

Not Really Suited for Command

I wrote this in response to Dan McCauley’s article at the Small Wars Journal:

Operational art and design is an enthralling field of study. I have one basic problem with the tenets of operational design; commanders don’t use it and key nodes in the decision-making process are choke holds for good decisions. First, understanding the operational environment is something that is difficult for most commanders and their subordinates to achieve. Much of the understanding vacillates from hyper-doctrinaire to free-form all of which are a result of the individual. It is hyper-doctrinaire in that it adheres to the absolute letter of the military decision-making process with little variation and free-form in that it is what is conceived by the man at the top whether it is the organization’s intelligence officer or higher at the command group. This resonates throughout various echelons in the military though not necessarily as a rule. For understanding the operational environment, this individual driven perception results in either too wide or too narrow a net to capture and sift the right information for decision-makers.

The same statement can be made for each step of the process, especially JIPOE. In practice, commanders are and have been acting as their chief intelligence analyst instead of deferring to their intelligence officer. The reason being is that most intelligence officers have not conducted intelligence analysis on a regular basis since their basic officer courses prior to assuming leadership positions. In addition, their professional development does not come at quick enough intervals for their field- a field constantly changing and developing new methodologies. Because those intelligence officers are in the spotlight, they do not rely on their intelligence analysts who are likely to know best the entire narrative and development of the operational environment. As a result, the command group conducts his own analysis and often rejects the insight of his own staff.

In terms of mission relevance, the same can be said for much of the operations process. Often it is not collaborative or multidisciplinary in approach. Most staff exercises are really rehearsals in efficiently shuffling paper from one echelon to the next. Exercise of crisis management and long-term analysis of the problem is not conducted in any real way. Often it is dependent on one man at the top (commander or operations officer) or all the work load goes to a few switched on assistant operations officers who keep the machine going behind the scenes. Both scenarios are dangerous for making momentous decisions that will have an impact on many lives in combat.

The change? Neither an impulse to restrict commanders roles or enforce a strict decision-making process. The real change should come in officer education and the emphasis for using modern managerial techniques in conjunction with a loose decision-making structure that is coordinated and refereed by the commander and the operations officer instead of dictated or abdicated. Much research has been done into flattened management and decision-making that is able to encompass the full-breadth of the problem in the context of the environmental conditions. The process takes longer, but it results in a more reasoned, patient and most likely, wise outcome.

Wisdom Gained

Andrew Exum’s piece on putting faith in special operations is a little disconcerting. The measure of knowledge and insight required to successfully understand any foreign country isn’t contained in years clocked and degrees obtained. Arguably, the complex environments in which special forces (SF) operate require some very quick learning for detachment commanders, but their training, and the experience of their non-commissioned officers (NCOs) and the warrant officer ensure that their judgements are tempered. SF veterans of Iraq, Afghanistan and OEF-where ever have been instrumental in shaping the operational environment in ways that a PhD could not conceive. Their tasks include engaging/managing tribal, political, commercial and governmental factions. The key difference is that SFODAs are actors having a significant impact in the futures of that geographic area whereas a scholar spends their time making detached observations and expanding the body of knowledge on that place. Scholars and experts from other fields help diversify SF operators’ knowledge and greater develop their understanding of a country or a place.

Special Forces are better attuned to understand, adapt to and manage the complex cultural and political situations that require precision especially in the context of a chaotic or violent situation. Sure, SF have areas in terms of depth, and baseline cultural and linguistic knowledge, but they should be the force or asset of choice to confront many of the national security challenges that are down the road for the US.

Before the Commercial Break…

Poking around this morning, doing my usual routine of making some french press from my favorite place down in Fremont (no, this is not an ad, but I am not afraid to advertise for local business), I came across “sponsor content” in The Atlantic advertising the coronation of China as “one nation shaping the world economy.”

Granted the sponsor is Cathay Pacific, a commercial airliner based out of Hong Kong, but the message and the images were a little confusing.  First, there is the banner (shown left) with a picture of the Pudong District of Shanghai in the background with the sun rising over the horizon.  That dreamy effect in the photo isn’t the morning dew evaporating; that’s just smog looming over the city.  But never mind that.  Remember, “one nation shaping the world economy.”

Again, the Atlantic and Cathay Pacific are being above-board about it, but in the margins next to the anonymous analysis is an interview with Atlantic writer James Fallows who recently penned China Airborne (great book by the way).  And it gets a little dicey from there…

In a section about China’s efforts to foster a culture of innovation and transform its economy into one based on innovation, the unknown author attempts to spin intellectual property right (IPR) theft as innovation.  Quoting author Dan Breznitz from a New York Times blog from almost a year ago, that “China’s companies are extremely efficient at creating new versions, often simpler, cheaper and more efficient, of technologies and products shortly after they are invented and marketed elsewhere in the world.”  I realize there are some divergent views about IPR piracy these days, but I would not necessarily uphold the belief that their economy is transforming based on the fact that they’ve innovated to make theft a legitimate business.  Though, according to Breznitz and his book, I guess they are getting rather good at it.

Maybe my jingoistic proclivities are showing again, but I was a little offended by the last paragraph. It emphasizes how, whatever the conclusions of the debate over their progress, China’s gaining market share in a whole host of industries.  It was sort of like a veiled threat.  Roll over and take it because it’s happening.

And now for my version of blatant nationalism…

George Washington

China Datum

So, after reading about the World Economic Forum and Klaus Schwab in the New Yorker article by Nick Paumgarten, I started to think about the global consensus about the Beijing consensus. The first thought was about the metrics behind the Global Competitiveness Report first conceived by Schwab. There is plenty of data out there about China’s economic performance, political freedom, transparency, trade, etc. So, then I thought, why not showcase those collected statistics and highlight some interesting facts about China. Over the next couple of weeks, I will summarize those highlights with links to the actual reporting and then some general analysis. The information comes from established sources and tend to be neutral/favorable to China. Obviously, some come from disciplines that are going to be largely critical of a regime and an economy like China’s. Others reflect stark data that fail to bolster the consensus that China is worth the trouble. I’ll start laying it out on Tuesday.

Noli me tangere

In a column in today’s The Diplomat, Filipino Congressman Mong Palantino gives voice to Filipino emotions about China’s bullying in the South China Seas. A lot of attention has been paid recently to US and regional responses to China’s moves. Bonnie Glaser does pretty good job of outlining warning indicators in her report over at the Council on Foreign Relations. The Center for a New American Century has a new Flash Points Bulletin covering economic and security challenges in the East and South China Seas, which was preceded by a comprehensive report at the beginning of the year.

The proximity to Central Luzon might be the biggest point of concern for most Filipinos. Other tangential issues include the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) modernization and the persistent issues of local politics and peacefully resolving the Mindanao insurgency.

For a comprehensive read on the Philippines, check out Luis Francia’s book. And for a reflection of the general consensus on China before they were up in our face, check out this old CRS report about China’s “soft power” in Southeast Asia.