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!

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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.

China’s Flight Plan: No Auto-pilot

Any recent air traveler encountering turbulence can appreciate the varying experiences one has with, say, Virgin America’s “pimp my flight” jets with purple night-club runner lights, ample services and buxom flight attendants compared the hostile flight attendants and bare-bones service on Northwest Airlines. When I was a college student in 2000, I took one of these Northwest flights from Detroit direct to Beijing for my semester abroad at Peking University. During my semester in China, I traveled by every means to quite a few destinations outside of Beijing, but to the more far-flung cities I traveled mostly by air. I flew several Chinese air carriers still in existence, including Air China and China Southern Airlines. After a flight from Shenzhen to Chengdu, I gathered my bags to find them soaked in urine and covered in poultry feathers, an unfortunate episode for a college student in an unfamiliar city and no clean clothes. This vignette is one small anecdote that reprises the experience of many Western travelers in developing countries, where the charm of traveling abroad can best be represented through American expectations and the ensuing comedy. In a similar fashion, James Fallows’ China Airborne spins a quaint first-person narrative that builds into a bare and troubling analysis of China’s seemingly decided rise to global superpower.

Writing an encompassing book about China’s rise without appearing polemic, venal or naive is a discouraging task for any writer, especially if they wish their book not to be outdated three months prior to publication. China Airborne steers clear of these hazards and accomplishes much more than the flap copy advertises. The book captures the forced projections of American business success in the first passage, which recounts a difficult sojourn to the Zhuhai Air Show in a small prop plane piloted by Fallows and Peter Claeys, a representative of Cirrus Aircraft, a light aircraft manufacturer out of Duluth, Minnesota. Confronted with a series of insurmountable obstacles in acquiring fuel and other general aviation support en route, Fallows and his flying companion embark on a dangerous flight so that Cirrus can be properly represented at the air show. The key point of this story is that despite the barriers of faulty fuel, difficult flying conditions and poor ground control, Cirrus, their representative and Fallows risked life and limb to land a China connection.

The plane we sat in was the only demonstration model of the Cirrus available in China, and Claeys was the company’s only salesman and company pilot anywhere nearby. If he and the plane didn’t get there by that Sunday evening, he would be embarrassingly absent for the next day’s demo flights, sales talks, and other events he had been lining up for months.

Why risk the life of a valued representative and a well-known journalist to make a presence for a product that, as the book later describes, is essentially barred from operation in China? Fallows proceeds to make an interesting case that the aerospace industry in China serves as a bellwether for the Chinese political economy’s maturation. According to this thought, the level of economic, political, regulatory and technological cohesion required to sustain the creation of a world-class aerospace industry that supports research and development of reliable, indigenously produced air frames would confirm the claim that China is ready to embrace the mantle of global leader. However, as the book describes, the amount of change in terms of academic and civic openness required to support an environment for innovation would translate into cataclysmic changes in the current Chinese system.

Underlying the anticipation of change is the persistent surveillance, restrictions and state control required to perpetuate China’s trademark authoritarian capitalism. One of the interesting hurdles Fallows mentions is, “Chinese law requires that images of Chinese cities from Google Maps, Google Earth, and the like be offset from online street maps.” For those not familiar with geospatial information studies (GIS), that means that online satellite images of Chinese cities are not geo-rectified or rather, the spot on digital images or maps do not match up to where the actual place is on the ground. His examples are as simple as navigating the complex roads of Beijing while trying to attend a function or trying to pilot an aircraft using available GPS data. The Chinese government treats basic GIS data as a state secret even though much of the information has likely already been captured by commercial and intelligence satellites from other countries and exists in the public domain. Again, the statist aspects of the Chinese system require such a level of control that stymies the commercial benefit of mapping resulting in a China left behind.

China Airborne continues further by recounting the history of the aviation industry in China, from the delivery of Boeing planes in conjunction with high-level rapprochement summits to the first key American aviation representatives who had important influence on the development of Chinese civil aviation. Understandably, the old hands came to China during the period of reform or in the post-Tiananmen era during a period of great prosperity. During this era, China was nothing if not clumsy in most sectors and eager to apply reasonable Western methods to bolster the country’s aviation industry credibility. China’s fumbles and lack of sophistication were passed off as a residual characteristic sure to go away with Western knowledge and engagement. At the time, it was the price of playing in a ripe, emerging market. But, today, China’s growth and level of political and economic influence means that the “developing country” grandfather clause, reiterated over and over as a feigned self-deprecating insight, should expire.

Fallows details at every level of his experience the oddities of the Chinese aviation industry. Notably, the construction of a modern regional airport in Weinan, Shaanxi, in the middle of nowhere, juxtaposing the amazing intellect, ambition, vision and cleverness of Chinese businessmen and local officials with the overriding hindrances of the Chinese state apparatus. The nimble maneuvering of Gao Yuanyang, deputy mayor of Weinan, to orchestrate the construction of an airport and “make this remote part of Shaanxi province into an international center for aviation research,” represents the type of foresight that Howard Hughes and others employed to catapult American aviation into dominance. The dark side of this story of inspiring characters remains the state choking out ingenuity at every turn. The limits placed on airspace in China by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) leave isolated, narrow corridors for commercial pilots to plan flight paths in between cities, and for Weinan, limits the possibilities of a flight test center or a flight training school. For commercial flights, the results are inefficient flight plans and an inability to adjust in-flight altitude in reaction to weather and terrain. Without the freedom to alter their flight path, common in most open societies, fuel is wasted and often passenger safety is put at risk. On one bright note, China, acutely aware the environmental impact of increased air travel by its mega-sized population, has invested heavily in biofuels for commercial planes. If successful, this research could have a major impact on global efforts to forestall climate change.

Fallows doesn’t sugarcoat his experiences in China and recounts a story where he personally witnessed the extent of the state’s desperate clutch for control. Fallows, his wife and Peter Claeys of Cirrus Aircraft visited Tiananmen Square in Beijing during the anniversary of the June 4, 1989, Tiananmen Massacre. Observing an altercation in which “a young Chinese-looking man” was “being hustled away by some of the ‘informal’ plainclothesmen,” Fallows attempts to casually take a picture of the scene. He and his party are immediately surrounded by uniformed police officers and questioned about their actions. Fallows’s observations reveals the overlapping layers of security and surveillance employed by the Chinese state. The depth and sophistication of the security apparatus is shocking but certainly barely scratches the surface. Pondering the incident, he later quotes Chinese philosopher Ai Siqi, who wrote, “All reactionary thought in contemporary China is of the same tradition. It emphasizes China’s ‘national characteristics,’ harps on China’s ‘special nature,’ and wipes aside the general principles of humanity.”

The history lost on China is that development is not an isolated path in which a country dictates its level of control. It is a reflection of negotiations, compromises and practicalities imposed by the constraints of the world. These constraints are more pressing in China’s apparent economic, political and military position amongst other nations. James Fallows is right when he says that “a wide range of outcomes is possible.” I agree with him that it is not a cop-out to avoid giving a concrete analysis of China’s future disposition. In hindsight, the United States may have missed an important opportunity over the previous twenty years to change its relationship and therefore the future of China through sustained political and military engagement. Now, it is almost certain that for greater political engagement, like any other “special interest,” American might have to pay to play. Our role and influence reduced, China will be able to push its agenda, and for American politicians and the our military to have an impact in China, we will have to placate and feed China’s ego. The failure to nourish Sino-American relations is one of the greatest foreign-policy blunders of the last twenty-five years. A second but just as important blunder is the failure to perceive the threat from China. Many intellectuals and politicians from the foreign policy establishment who made their mark during the reform and post-Tiananmen era either ignored it or were blinded by their bias. The future is not certain, but our ability to effectively respond is seriously diminished.

China Airborne manages to sift through the intricacies contained in our China dilemma, capture forgotten histories about China’s development and the genesis of its aviation sector, and provide a captivating first-person chronicle of Fallows’s experiences. As a long-time observer of China’s rise, this book certainly appealed to me. It presents a level of detail and “atmospherics” unparalleled in most writing on China. Whatever logical fallacies or errors of bias contained in the book, Fallows overshadows them with the depth of consideration given to each issue and by giving each one an asterisk in the form of his personal stories. The book does what any book, whether fiction or non-fiction, should hope to accomplish; it leaves you informed, somewhat unsettled and eager to consider its implications long after you have finished reading.