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9 September 2008 Charles J. Brown
05:16 pm

China: It’s Still Propaganda and They’re Still Dictators

James Reynolds of the BBC has a short post today about just how human Chinese leaders are:

China’s leaders sometimes do their best to look as stolid as possible (they wear identical black suits and blank expressions, they sit in oversized chairs and clap politely). But many of them are known for more than just staring straight ahead and signing decrees.

He recalls that Deng Xiaopeng was an avid bridge player and that Jiang Ziemin liked to sing — even attempting Western opera.  He then highlights the current leaders’ hobbies:

The current president, Hu Jintao, doesn’t appear to sing in public (apart from the national anthem, presumably). But it’s mildly worth knowing that he took a dance class when he was at university. And, as noted here before, he’s pretty good at ping-pong.

The current premier, Wen Jiabao, is also a successful poet. One of his poems has been used in a new film about reform in the forestry industry, Drawing the Border. It’s not exactly a Jackie Chan martial arts action film, but it’ll no doubt attract a loyal audience of Communist Party members and people intrigued by the latest developments in the forestry industry (there are always many).

The film tells the story of how party officials successfully persuade local villagers to take part in the reform of the forestry industry. The film-makers have used one of Mr Wen’s poems, called Looking up at the Starry Sky, as the lyrics of their theme song.

And this is news?  Mr. Reynolds appears to have forgotten the fact that the propaganda arms of dictatorships do everything they can to portray the leader as decent, kind, and good.  Hitler liked children.  Stalin was a good and loving father.  Mugabe is a revolutionary hero with the best interests of his nation at heart.  It’s all nonsense.  In the end, it doesn’t matter that Jiang Zemin likes to sing opera — what matters is his role in maintaining ChiCom rule, including the Tiananmen Massacre in 1989.

Perhaps the most famous example of efforts to humanize a dictator was Yuri Andropov, who was General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (in other words the guy in charge) from November Yuri Andropov1982 to February 1984.  As his Wikipedia profile notes,

The Western media favored Andropov because of his supposed passion for western music and scotch.

In a 1983 article in The New Republic, Edward Jay Epstein explored this legend in greater detail:

Andropov’s accession to power last November was accompanied by a corresponding ennoblement of his image. . . . Harrison Salisbury wrote, “The first thing to know about Mr. Andropov is that he speaks and reads English.” Another Times story took note of his “fluent English.” Newsweek reported that even though he had never met a “senior” American official, “he spoke English and relaxed with American novels.” . . .Time described him as reportedly “a witty conversationalist,” and “a bibliophile” and “connoisseur of modern art” to boot. . . .

Soon there were reports that Andropov was a man of extraordinary accomplishment, with some interests and proclivities that are unusual in a former head of the K.G.B. According to an article in The Washington Post, Andropov “is fond of cynical political jokes with an antiregime twist. . . . collects abstract art, likes jazz and Gypsy music,” and “has a record of stepping out of his high party official’s cocoon to contact dissidents.” Also, he swims, “plays tennis,” and wears clothes that are “sharply tailored in a West European style.”  . . .The Wall Street journal added that Andropov “likes Glenn Miller records, good scotch whisky, Oriental rugs, and American books.”

. . .According to The Washington Post, Yuri Andropov is “a perfect host.” On some occasions, he would invite “leading dissidents to his home for well-lubricated discussions that sometimes extended to the wee hours of the morning,” after which he would send his guests home in his own chauffeured car. . . . Andropov’s library, according to an earlier Times story, included Valley of the Dolls, by Jacqueline Susann, and How Green Was My Valley, by Richard Llewellyn. . . .

Moreover, according to Salisbury, Andropov regularly invited dissident muscicians to his apartment for “private recitals.” His record collection included the “Glenn Miller Orchestra and other American bands,” and his bar, “scotch and French cognac.” . . .The Wall Street Journal [reported] that Andropov’s home was furnished with Hungarian furniture, the gift of Janos Kadar, Hungary’s Moscow-backed leader, as an apparent gesture of appreciation for Mr. Andropov’s role in suppressing the Hungarian Revolution.”

. . .What emerges from these attempts to piece together a version of Andropov’s life is a portrait worthy of “Saturday Night Live”: the head of the K.G.B. as one wild and crazy guy. After a hard day at the office repressing dissent, Brezhnev’s heir spends the evening at home, telling antiregime jokes in fluent English and playing jazz. For dissidents.

The reality, of course, is that Andropov was the only former head of the KGB to go on to rule the Soviet Union.  He was ruthless, brutal, and never invited dissidents to do anything other than join work details in the Gulag.  He also played a central role in the repression of the Hungarian Revolution.

But much as Reynolds does with the ChiComs, journalists at the time of Andropov’s ascension were looking for something — anything — to tell their readers about the guy.  Half-baked stories from what Epstein calls “elusive” sources were better than the reality of a ruthless ex-KGB director now ruling a nuclear superpower.  During Andropov’s brief rule — and perhaps while listening to Glenn Miller or Frank Sinatra, he authorized the shooting down of Korean Airlines flight KAL-007, which had accidentally strayed into Soviet airspace.

Of course, in the end, the press missed the real story:  that Andropov, 71 at the time of his accesion, already was suffering from the kidney disease that eventually would kill him.  After six months a year in office, he suffered renal failure, and from August 1983, he ruled from a hospital bed.  He died in February 1984, only fifteen months after he had come to power.

Image:  Wikipedia, used under a GNU Free Documentation License

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9 September 2008 Charles J. Brown
12:15 pm

Jimmy Buffett Pwns Hu Jintao

Will Americans ever tire of lists?  Every week there’s another one of the damn things.  And what drives me crazy is that they often are worth examining.

This week, Vanity Fair came out with a list of the “World’s Most Powerful and Influential People.”  Here are the Top Ten:

  1. Vladimir Putin
  2. Rupert Murdoch, News Corporation
  3. Larry Page, Sergey Brin, and Eric Schmidt, The Googles
  4. Steve Jobs, Apple
  5. Warren Buffett, Berkshire Hathaway
  6. Jeff Bezos, Amazon
  7. Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum, ruler of Dubai
  8. Roman Abramovich, Millhouse Capital
  9. Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt
  10. Al Gore

President Bush did not make the list.  Neither did Barack Obama, John McCain, Joe Biden, or Sarah Palin.

Here’s a partial list of the people Vanity Fair thinks are more influential than they are.

  • Bill Clinton (11)
  • Michael Bloomberg (12)
  • Stephen Spielberg (14)
  • Ralph Lauren (15)
  • Arnold Schwartzenegger (33)
  • Tom Hanks (34)
  • Bono (36)
  • Oprah (43)
  • Jon Stewart (44)
  • Stephen Colbert (45)
  • George Clooney (56)
  • Jay-Z (57)
  • Judd Apatow (58)
  • Mick Jagger (61)
  • Ron Howard (65)
  • Matt Drudge (74)
  • Charlie Rose (81)
  • Joel and Ethan Cohen (85)
  • Arianna Huffington (90)
  • Tom Brokaw (95)
  • Jimmy Buffett (97)

I like Jimmy Buffett.  I have quite a few of his albums.  I’m from Florida, after all.

But am I supposed to believe that he’s more influential than Hu Jintao?  Hell, Hu Jintao could have half the people on this list put to death before breakfast.

Why do I get the feeling that a bunch of writers at VF sat around a room, drank some good wine, and rattled off a bunch of names? The magazine says that inclusion on the list was based on “a number of factors: wealth and influence, as well as such intangibles as vision, philanthropy, and the x factor.”

I realize that Bush is a complete and total disaster, but you’re telling me he has less influence than Jay-Z? Or Judd “I’ve made three funny movies” Apatow?  And last I checked, Charlie Rose does not have the ability to rain nuclear hell down on anybody.

Here’s a list of ten somewhat influential and powerful people that these idiots left off the list:

  • Bill Gates
  • Nicolas Sarkozy
  • Angela Merkel (named the most influential woman by Forbes, but eclipsed by Angelina on this list)
  • Condoleezza Rice
  • Lee Kwan Yew
  • Gordon Brown Tony Blair
  • Hillary Clinton
  • Manmohan Singh
  • Pope Benedict XVI
  • Hugo Chavez

Then there are folks like Mahmoud Ahmadenijad, Robert Mugabe, and Kim Jong Il, who can make people wet their pants just by sneezing.

Now that is what I call an x-factor.


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27 August 2008 Charles J. Brown
08:45 am

Controlympics: Winners (#1 of 4)

Most of you already have forgotten all about the Olympics, but here at Undip, we already have London 2012 fever!  After all, who doesn’t want to see Jimmy Page balance his guitar on top of his walker while some eighteen-year-old in go-go boots mangles Whole Lotta Love?

Oh wait — that already happened.

All kidding aside, I’d like to share a few final thoughts on what arguably were the most discussed — and controversial — Olympics since Berlin 1936. First, let’s take a look at the winners.

1.  The Chinese government. Like it or not, the ChiComs pulled it off.  It was, in many ways, a spectacular show.  Despite some problems, embarrassments, and even a few unscripted moments, the Olympics that Hu Jintao and company wanted were the Olympics they got.  And most of the world bought their message hook, line, and sinker.

2.  Usain Bolt. The Jamaican sprinter not only captured three golds, but he managed to make Jacques Rogge cranky.  That alone made it a good Olympics.  Bolt looked particularly good when, a day after Rogge whined about his “antics,” a Cuban taekwondo athlete kicked an athlete in the face — and Bolt donated $50,000 of his prize money to earthquake relief as a “thank you to the Chinese people.”

3.  Michael Phelps (and his mom). Put it this way:  the Intertubes are still buzzing about the 100m fly.  Debbie Phelps will be the unexpected breakout star of the Olympics.

4.  Clean air. Does it matter whether the Chinese got lucky (rain at just the right moments) or actually knew what they were doing?  In the end, the pollution became a non-story.  And athletes who acted like it mattered — the American cyclists showing up in masks, the Ethiopian marathoner who passed on competing — looked foolish.

5.  Lopez Lomong. The Sudanese lost boy turned American flag bearer may not have won his race, but he had a gold medal moment.  Kudos as well to the American athletes who chose him for the job.

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24 August 2008 Charles J. Brown
10:47 pm

Controlympics: Tape-Delayed Blogging the Closing Ceremonies

Hey boys and girls, it’s time for the Closing Ceremonies!  You know, the ones that actually took place 12 hours ago!  The ones that NBC wouldn’t let you see until now!  And I’m here to give you tape-delayed play by play.

Let me admit up front that this is going to be pretty snarky.  If you’re looking serious analysis, go elsewhere.

Oh goody.  Comrade Joshua (Joshua Cooper-Ramo) is back.  NBC hasn’t even started showing the damn thing and I already want to hurl.  (For those who missed my tape-delayed blogging of the opening ceremonies, Comrade Joshua is a paid shill of the ChiComs er, I mean, a partner in the Beijing office of Kissinger Associates.  Oh wait — there’s no difference between the two, is there?)

Another massive fireworks display.  This one looks less like Triumph of the Will and more like CNN’s coverage of the first night of the Persian Gulf War.  I’m pretty sure that’s not what the ChiComs were going for.

The three stooges were just introduced:  Hu “Is Lying Now” Juntao, Juan Antonio “More of the” Samarach, and Gordon “I Will Have Trouble Getting Tickets to the London Games” Brown.

They’ve got Chinese in ethnic costumes again.  This time, it’s adults.  I wonder if they’re all Han Chinese again?

Something tells me that NBC is milking this for all they’ve got.  I think the first commercial break ran for something like 45 minutes.

Is it my imagination or do the drummers look like Iron Man wearing bike helmets?  Were they afraid they’d get conked by the guys bin the row behind them? Wait, they’re not just bike helmets — they’re bike helmets painted with gold glitter paint!

Molly just said that they guys hovering over the stadium look like they’re playing giant Gouda cheeses.  And why are the women dressed like Aztecs covered with glow brights?

I’m sorry, but that first piece looked like the North Korean version of cell mitosis.  At least the opening ceremonies made sense.  I mean this is so weird that even Comrade Joshua doesn’t have anything clever and butt-kissing to say.

Whoopsie — spoke too soon.  Apparently Comrade Joshua thinks that this is a representation of what Chinese philosophy will have to say in the future.  Uh, okaaay.

Have to say the guys on the giant unicycles are pretty cool.

Okay something looking like a giant white sperm just plunged into the big cell in the middle.  I’m telling you, it’s like a cross between Cirque de Soleil and your 8th grade sex ed class.

Terminator 6:  Arnold battles the cyborg pogo stick clones

I would not want to be the guys hanging off the underside of the gouda cheeses.

Time for another 206 minute commercial break.

Here come the athletes.  I wonder if NBC will show anyone other than the Americans, Europeans, Chinese, and Australians?  Maybe the Jamaicans.

Comrade Joshua is blathering again about harmony.  It’s like the reverse of It’s a Wonderful Life:  every time Comrade Joshua talks about harmony, another human rights activist gets thrown in jail.

Now he’s moanaing about how great the Chinese sports system is.  Now he’s calling the athletes an engineering project.  Nice analogy you twit.

I didn’t know they had found a way to miniaturize Shawn Johnson.

The third biggest star of the Games, behind Michel Phelps and Usain Bolt?  Michael Phelps’s mom.  I liked her new commercial, even though it’s sappy.

Once again, all happy and sappy commercials — until John McCain shows up, sounding like the grumpy uncle who can never enjoy the family picnic.

I wonder if they’re showing all of this on the big screens at the three protest zones. Heh.

Best parts of this are the replays of the best moments of the Games:  4×100 freestyle relay, Phelps’s amazing win in the 100 butterfly, Usain Bolt in the 100.  Still waiting for the Cuban guy kicking the ref in the face and the two little old Chinese women being sentenced to one year each in a reeducation through labor camp for attempting to organize a protest.

You want to know just how tape delayed this is?  Last night, NBC showed the tape delayed results of the men’s marathon.  Tonight, they’re showing that event’s medal ceremony, as it’s part of the closing ceremonies.  That’s not tape delayed, that’s the History Channel.

Sorry, but the kids escorting the athletes are really, really creepy looking.  I think they welded the smiles on their faces.

Comrade Joshua is talking about how all the volunteers spent a year getting ready.  Not to make light of the contributions of the volunteers, but reports of children spending twelve hour days after school each day practicing doesn’t sound to me like volunteerism.  As Zhang Yimou, who directed both the opening and closing ceremonies noted, “uniformity can bring beauty.”  Of course it also brings pain, nervous breakdowns, and a range of other maladies.

Now Joshua is talking about how great everything went.

Here comes Jacques “the slime-sucking, lying dillweed” Rogge.  He thanks the people of China and says these were sixteen days we will cherish forever.  Except the people thrown in jail, of course.

A choir is singing “God Save the Queen.”  In China.  So much for communism.

They’re lowering the Olympic flag, and you can see empty seats in the background.

What’s up with this double-decker bus?  First of all, it’s incredibly ugly.  Second, didn’t they discontinue those?  And the pantomime Londoners are worse than the Chinese.  Oh man, the British presentation is just freaking awful.  I take back everything bad I ever said about the Chinese portion of the ceremonies.

I think Leona Lewis is lip-syncing Enya.   Oh. My. God.  Now she’s lip-syncing Whole Lotta Love.  With a 200-year old Jimmy Page guitar-syncing.

The London section is so freaking bizarre.  What were they thinking?  What is Jimmy Page thinking?  This is worse than a really bad high school production of Hair.  All the athletes are standing around not quite sure how to react.

And now David Beckham?  Did someone slip me a tab of really good acid?  Am I high?  WTF?

Mary Carillo just said, “nice taste of London.”  Really?  Have you ever freaking been to London Mary?  Go back to the Three Gorges Dam and jump off.  Now.  Please.

Okay, there are ten thousand athletes here and they’re using actors to play the athletes leaving.  Maybe they can take Mary Carillo with them.

Comrade Joshua just said all 91,000 spectators were “trained” ahead of time to wave red lanterns.  Apparently the training didn’t work, because most of them are taking pictures instead.

The Chinese are now trying to win back the gold medal for bizarre ceremonies from the British.  Two guys covered head-to-to in white chalk are dancing on top of a giant five story tower.

The flame just went out.  I can’t help thinking of the flame held by the goddess of democracy in Tiananmen Square back in 1989.  Maybe someday a Chinese government will finally recognize which flame was more important.

The five-story tower is now writhing, covered with humans in silver and red jumpsuits.  I know I should be impressed by these feats, but all I can think of are swarming bugs.  Part of the problem is I keep hearing Zhang talking about how much he admires the North Koreans.

Mary Carillo just called it the “holy flame” of the Olympics.  I’m about to start calling her Comrade Mary.

The red strips of cloth on the five-story tower make it look like that scene from Priscilla, Queen of the Desert where Guy Pearce is strapped onto the top of the bus.

Why do all male pop singers in China look like the Back Street Boys channeling Elvis in Memphis circa 1968?

OMG it’s the Chinese version of the video for Robert Palmer’s Addicted to Love.  Except the girls are smiling.  And wearing yellow tops and white pants.  And playing an electrified version of a traditional Chinese instrument.  But other than that, it’s almost identical.

I think they’ve cloned Daft Funk.  There are something like 200 guys in track suits, glow-brights, and  motorcycle helmets bouncing up and down like yo-yos.

It’s official: Bollywood music seriously kicks Chinese pop music’s butt.  This song that Wei Wei is singing is just bloody dreadful.

Jackie Chan can’t sing.

Molly just said that the goal of the closing ceremony should not be to make you want to shut off your tee vee.  Can’t say I disagree with her.  Chinese pop music is a crime against humanity.  It’s so bad that they’ve managed to silence Comrade Joshua.  Even he can’t rationalize this away.

They just don’t know how to end this, do they?  Please tell me that the confetti cannons and fireworks are the end.

Now they’re in London, via the BBC.  Has the BBC not gotten around to upgrading to High Definition yet?  And who is this moron interviewing Michael Phelps?  He sounds like the host of Top of the Pops.

It. Is. Over.

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16 August 2008 Charles J. Brown
06:30 pm

Controlympics: Hu’s Unhappy Now?

From Time’s China blog

Traditionally, women’s volleyball has been one of the country’s strengths, and part of the reason for that strong tradition is a woman name Lang Ping, one of the best women volleyball players ever. Known as the “Iron Hammer” during her playing days, she led China to the gold medal in the LA Olympics 24 years ago, where they defeated the United States in the finals.

Now, Lang Ping (known in the US as “Jenny” Lang Ping) is the coach of the US women, and last night, in an extraordinarily dramatic match, she led them to a five set victory over….China. This was a huge upset. The US women’s team hasn’t been in the top tier internationally in the last few years. And for the home team, the stakes were huge. China was one of the favorites, and they in particular did not want to lose to a US team coached by their former super star. How big was this match for China? Hu Jintao was there to watch. The US came from two sets to one down, on China’s home court, to win.

I have to admit that my initial emotion upon hearing this is not pride but rather schaedenfreude.  I wouldn’t want to be in the Chinese coach’s shoes right now.

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8 August 2008 Charles J. Brown
11:38 am

Reindeer Games: Bush, Human Rights, and China

I know I’m a little behind on this, but I just read in the papertubes that Dubya gave a speech about human rights in China .  And that the ChiComs are not happy about it.

My first instinct was to applaud him for speaking out.  After his appearance before the foreign press last week, during which he set a new personal record for inanity, obsequiousness, and malapropisms,  I was sure that he would be so busy begging Hu “Is Lying Now” Jintao not to liquidate China’s dollar holdings that he wouldn’t dare talk about human rights or democracy.  So reports that he did, and that the Chinese got mad as a result, came as a pleasant surprise.

Then I read the speech.

The first thing I noticed was that he gave it in Thailand.  Not at the Embassy dedication in Beijing, not during his visit to the Olympics, but in Bangkok.  He might as well have given it in Timbuktu.

The second I noticed was that he does not mention human rights in China until the twenty-sixth paragraph — out of twenty-nine total.  It comes only after he’s praised the Chinese for their economic achievements, highlighted their role in the six-party talks on North Korea, begged them not to foreclose on our economy, and reiterated America’s belief in a “one China” policy.

It also comes after he wishes the Queen of Thailand a happy birthday, praises the economic achievments of Thailand and other countries in the region, invokes the threat of terrorism, discusses North Korea, and gives a shout out to his wife for her work on Burma.  (That’s right, of all the people working on Burma in this world, he chose to praise Laura.)

The actual criticism takes up two paragraphs of twenty-nine.  They look almost like an afterthought.  And they include the following sentence:

Change in China will arrive on its own terms and in keeping with its own history and its own traditions.

I just ran that little gem through the Diplospeak Translator, and this is what came out:

DIPLOSPEAK TRANSLATOR: We’re not really serious about this, but Congress and those whiny human rights organizations back home will kick my butt for the rest of my term if I don’t pretend to care. Please please please please don’t be mad at me.

What nonsense.  And the ChiComs got in a lather over this? Here’s what the Foreign Ministry said in response:

Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang admonished Bush, saying “We firmly oppose any words or acts that interfere in other countries internal affairs, using human rights and religion and other issues.” He also said the Chinese government is dedicated to promoting basic rights, and that “Chinese citizens have freedom of religion.These are indisputable facts.”

This isn’t foreign policy.  It’s Chinese Opera.  I don’t know which I find more distressing.

  • The fact that the White House is spinning this as courage;
  • The fact that the Chinese have gotten their collective Communist capitalist noses out of joint for such innocuous language; or
  • That the Western media bought the whole thing as a real controversy.

The games have started, Bush will forget about his admonition, the Chinese will welcome him, and everyone will enjoy the spectacle and the athleticism.  Nothing else will happen.

There’s a term my summer camp friends used to have for such hypocrisy:  Reindeer Games, which we defined as pretending to care about something when you really didn’t give a damn what happened.  I think that pretty much summarizes the situation here.  All posturing, no content.

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2 August 2008 Charles J. Brown
09:00 am

Hu’s Lying Now?

That wacky, wacky Hu Juntao — he’s such a kidder!  Via the BBC:

With one week to go to the Beijing Olympics, Chinese President Hu Jintao has urged people not to politicise the Games….  Mr. Hu said politicising the event undermined the Olympic movement, and called for dialogue to resolve contentious issues.

HAHAHAHAHAHAHA.  As my 20-month-old daughter would say, “So funny.”

Contrary to the myth propagated by the IOC (and NBC), the Olympics aren’t about bringing the world together; they’re about nations competing, often viciously, to demonstrate their superiority.  And this year, no one is doing that more loudly or frequently than the ChiComs.

Much as Berlin 1936 was about demonstrating Germany’s reemergence as a major player on the world scene, Beijing 2008 is about showing China’s dynamism and power.  That is why the ChiComs basically tore down the entire freaking city and rebuilt it from scratch.  Albert Speer, white courtesy phone please.

In fairness to the Chinese, no recent Olympics host has avoided the temptation to use the Games to show off.  The United States was just as bad in Atlanta and Los Angeles, the Soviets were almost as over the top in Moscow, the South Koreans had their moments in Seoul, and the Brits will represent more of the same in four years.  Even the Greeks managed to be loud, proud, and jingoistic in 2004.  After all, that’s the whole point:  countries fight so hard to host one of these quadrennial monstrosities posing as spectacular sporting events so they can act like the diplomatic equivalent of alpha males.

The only exception I can think of are the Aussies in 2000.  They were having far too much fun to be overtly nationalistic.  Occasionally obnoxious, sure, but that was just the alcohol talking.

That said, when Molly and I visited Melbourne during the 2006 Commonwealth games, we were treated to a roomful of our well-lubricated friends cheerfully shouting “Aussie Aussie Oi Oi!” over and over and over again as their countrymen and -women swept the swimming medals.  So perhaps even the residents of Oz are not immune to nationalism’s siren call.

Photo credits:

  • Beijing National Stadium:  via darajan, using a Creative Commons license.
  • Berlin Olympic Stadium:  via Olympiastadium Berlin, public domain.

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