Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Who won the Cold War? The answer may surprise...

If there was a victor declared in the Cold War, China would have to be considered a contender for the title. No other major country came out of the undeclared conflict with as few scars — psychological and structural — as China. While the United States suffered through internal crises such as the Vietnam War and the growth of the military-industrial complex, and the Soviet Union simply ceased to exist after the Cold War, China managed to successfully developed during the conflict from a backwater into a modern (if still backward provincially) industrial state with enormous potential. While facing vehement opposition from first one side in the Cold War, then the other, the Chinese were eventually able to play both sides against the middle and forward their own ends, while sometime forwarding those of the United States or Soviet Union.

The People’s Republic of China suffered few psychological scars during the course of the Cold War because it suffered most of them during its formation. The country was radically changed almost literally overnight from a near-feudal state to socialism. The flexibility engendered from such a change was to come in handy as China was forced to develop in the wake of changing geo-political realities during the Cold War era. As benefiting a nation that had the world’s largest population and one of the largest territorial area, neither the Soviet Union nor the United States could afford to ignore China. Neither did — both nations had periods of pragmatic friendship and outright warfare with China between 1950 and 1990.

After China was “lost” in 1949, the United States felt threatened by almost a billion new communists. The Chinese intervention in the Korean War and Mao’s early alliance with the USSR only served to exacerbate the perceived problem. America’s support of the Kuomintang leadership on Taiwan led into disagreements that still echo to this very day. Every crisis in the Taiwan Straight, such as the persistent shelling of offshore islands like Quemoy and Matsu, threatened to escalate into open warfare among Chinese, Taiwanese and American forces. Eventually, the United States and China realized the advantages of working together against a mutual adversary, the Soviet Union. Rapprochement began in the early 1970s with such endeavors as secret state visits and ping-pong tournaments. It later grew into strong economic links. By the end of the Cold War, although the United States was once again healthy socially and economically, it had to face the fact that America’s interests had been severely overextended, and its psyche bruised, by stalemate in Korea, an effective loss in Vietnam and other legacies of the Cold War.

On the other side, as Sino-Soviet relations deteriorated in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the geo-political situation reversed completely. Chinese rapprochement with the United States advanced rapidly, as the two nations found common cause in their antipathy toward the Soviet Union. Border clashes between the USSR and China, sometimes involving whole divisions of troops, symbolized the rapid deterioration of relations after the Soviet Union was de-Stalinized. Mao Tse-Tung (right) took de-Stalinization as a threat to his own style of leadership and proclaimed himself the new leader of world revolution accusing Khrushchev of being an “American stooge.” Rivalry between the Communist powers became ideological as well as personal. In response, Sino-American cooperation increased dramatically, and — partially as a result of having to confront the West (and its massive and technologically advanced arsenal) as well as China simultaneously— the Soviet Union also overextended its strength, which contributed significantly to the final collapse of the Soviet empire in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

China meanwhile, emerged from the Cold War with a massive industrial economy, as new western markets opened to its manufactured goods. By moving forward with their own policies and alternatively confronting both the Soviet Union and United States when it suited their needs, Chinese leaders were able to position their country into a spot where China could move ahead in the post-Cold War area. By alternatively working with both East and West, China was able to become the important state its population warranted, and not just a “paper tiger” as Mao characterized “imperialist” countries.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Kaiju and airline change fees

I'm not normally one to promote my dreams, but I enjoyed one last night:

So I'm waiting with my luggage at a bus stop in front of a gas station somewhere in southern Japan for a ride back to the airport (while I'm supposedly in Japan, the street -- a wide boulevard somewhat reminiscent to Geary Boulevard in San Francisco's Outer Sunset District -- has right-side driving). Suddenly a giant monster, in the shape of a male Japanese college student (several hundred feet tall, with glasses and teased black hair) began attacking the city while speaking nonsensical Japanese (how I knew it was nonsensical, I don't know).

The kaiju circled the gas station a couple times, as I hid under the station's awnings, then eventually moved on without attacking. Seconds later, an American Airlines 757 (below, right) landed in front of me on the wide boulevard, the side of the plane opened like a DeLorean, and someone asked if there were any Americans around.

I somehow immediately knew it was a State Department evacuation flight and climbed aboard. Right behind the open cockpit, there was a luggage rack like one would find on an airport bus, where I first put my suitcase then climbed into myself. I watched as the pilots took the plane off the street, narrowly avoiding buildings, then up to cruising altitude and engaged the autopilot.

I then walked toward the rear of the plane, past the first class and economy seats to the back, where there was a small kitchen and a community room with a recliner. With all the twenty-somethings about, it reminded me of a youth hostel. I was about to go back up front to fetch my laptop from my bag so I could sit with it on the recliner, when I noticed the short, dumpy flight attendant.

At that point I asked her where the plane was heading, hoping it was a west coast destination like San Francisco or Los Angeles. To my disappointment, she said "Newark." I asked if we would get a note saying we had boarded an emergency evacuation flight so I wouldn't have to pay United Airlines a change fee to switch my Osaka-SFO flight to EWR-SFO. The flight attendant didn't know.

It was only then that I woke up with fright.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Unfortunate political namesakes

Sorry to do two posts in a row on Australia, but the following headline was too good not to comment on:
Now you just know that the Sydney Morning Herald was waiting for former Australian treasurer Peter Costello to have some sort of conflict with Liberal Party Leader Tony Abbott so they could run some variation of the headline above.

Remind you of anybody?:
(Are Abbott and Costello well-known in Oz?)

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

The "shocking" fall of Peter Garrett and how it symbolizes the political process

When in Canberra a few months ago, I posted a brief note here about how interesting I found it that former Midnight Oil frontman Peter Garrett (right) was Australia's minister of culture and the environment.

Garrett, and the Oils (my second-favorite Aussie band, and the one whose music holds up the best) as a whole, have long been known for their activism. Their 1988 single "Beds Are Burning," highlighting White Australia's mistreatment of its Aboriginal peoples, is perhaps the most-famous example. Garrett was elected to Parliament in 2004 and become a minister when the Labor party came to power a few years later. Now Garrett finds himself in significant political hot water, and how the press and public have turned against him is an interesting case study about what the public expects from its leadership.

Part of Garrett's portfolio included supervision over federal energy conservation measures, and that included supporting a home insulation program. As most of us know, proper insulation can lower energy costs by keeping the insulated building either hotter or cooler, as desired. Thousands of Australian homes received insulation in their attics as part of this program -- insulation that was coated in metal.

That insulation has directly resulted in the deaths of four workers, either through electrocution or heat stroke, and has been implicated in about 90 house fires (the metal has in some cases contacted electrical wires, causing short circuits). As word got around about the program's poor safety record, pressure on Garrett steadily increased, with calls for his resignation being heard far and wide. Eventually, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd demoted Garrett, stripping him of his energy duties.

This was an interesting case for me. How far up the ladder should someone fall on their sword in such a debacle? Did Garrett know about the safety problems beforehand? Apparently not. Does he have a background as an electrician? No.

A recent experience with the South San Francisco Housing Authority showed me that the public expects its officials (elected or otherwise) to be able to micromanage all the way down the food chain. Sometimes that's quite simply not possible.

Take the example of the SSF HA. Of the board members, two are retired from non-technical backgrounds, two (including myself) are college/university students and two are "resident" commissioners, who live in the authority (not to cast any dispersions, but one has to be low-income to live in the complex, so it's unlikely they have expertise in municipal finance). Those might not be the best backgrounds for the kind of work we do, but I don't consider us unqualified -- we truly are representatives of the general public, regular Joes who are trying to serve the community. For technical matters, including contracting and finance, we have to rely on the expertise of paid staff.

So it is with Garrett as well. He certainly has the background for the "cultural" part of his ministry. But like us has to rely on the experts' opinions on technical matters beyond his background. His consultants with expertise should have known better and warned him of the dangers, and should face discipline. Should Garrett?

I don't have a good answer. In my case, I'd certainly be a better commissioner if I had a background in contracting or even painting (my MPA will hopefully help address at least the former). But one beauty of America (and Australia, for that matter) is that credit is due to concerned individuals who do their best while others sit and complain when things don't go their way.

It happened to us, and it happened to Garrett.