Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Ryan Pyle Blog: The Mother & The Message

I had an odd experience a few days ago that I felt needed to be written about. Today's blog is about an English Language sign. This sign was bright RED with large bold YELLOW letters, and it read:

"Learn the socialist concept of Honor and Disgrace, Be a Model Citizen and make Preparations for the Special Olympics World Summer Games."

I felt that the sign was very much in line with many of the signs one will come across while traveling about in China. My problem with this sign is not the fact that it exists, my problem is that this sign - about 20 meters wide - was located in full view as people exit customs and make their way to the taxi line at the Pudong International Airport.

Now, I take offense to a sign like this, and let me try to explain. I live in Shanghai and I call the city my home. It's not my home away from home, it is home. I have no plans of ever leaving. My committment to documenting the country is most serious. And in many ways I feel proud of Shanghai and how the city has developed. Of course there are numerous problems, some serious, some not so much - but it is home none the less and most importantly, Shanghai is the show case city of China. What really gets under my skin is that the sign is embarrassing. As I stood in the Pudong airport arrivals terminal, my mother is making her first trip to China, I listened to people as they were arriving from around the world look up, point and snicker at this sign. I felt as though it was 1972 because the sign seemed to belong to something of that era. The economy of China is changing, but how are the thoughts of government officials and political leaders changing? And crucially, how could anyone put up a sign like that in such a crucial location? It boggles my mind.

Secondly, I take offense to this sign is as an English speaker. If you look at the wording of the sign it is obvious to see that someone has done an exact, awkward translation of the Chinese characters. It's a shame. China courts Foreign Direct Investment with a vengeance. The country is on a Public Relations mission like no other country in history and yet the first thing business persons and tourists see when they arrive in Shanghai is a sign like that, a throwback to the days of Chairman Mao. If China wanted to promote the Special Olympics in Shanghai in 2007 I am sure they could find a much more slick and interesting approach. But then again, the sign outraged me enough to blog about it - so perhaps then the sign is creating a buzz, but for all the wrong reasons.

To conclude, China is an odd country where things don't always make sense, and this sign falls firmly in to this category. It's a reminder that no matter how many flashy buildings are built in Shanghai, or even that the country will grow this year at 10+% again this year - this sign is a reminder that the thought process of those people who run this country lags at least 10 years behind the people you meet on the streets, and perhaps 20-30years behind the people who visit China for work or leisure. The Communist Party is finding itself ever more isolated in its thought and politics, and signs like this are just another painful example of that.

Ryan Pyle
Skype: ryanpyle

Monday, October 09, 2006

Ryan Pyle Blog: China & A Nuclear North Korea

Mark it down in your calendars. Monday October 9th - around 11:30am. Today is the day the world did not change.

North Korea tested a nuclear bomb today. According to reports, todays occurrence was an underground test, which was essentially registered as an earthquake. So, what exactly have we learned today that was different from yesterday. The answer is nothing.

Yesterday it was widely known that North Korea had a nuclear bomb and it was more than willing to defy the United Nations, the countries involved in the 6 party talks and, most of all, the United States.

Yesterday we knew Kim Jong-il was an unstable ruler with impeccable timing and a master at dividing world opinion on how to deal with a nuclear Korean peninsula. Today he is much the same man, but today he most likely has a little more swagger in his step.

I rarely feel the need to comment on events outside of China, mostly because China is what I spend much of my effort trying to understand. But let there be no doubt, this nuclear test today is a complete slap in the face by Kim Jong-il to the Chinese government and this event has a lot to do with China. Let me explain more.

China has backed, both militarily and financially, North Korea since it's inception. North Korea's former leader Kim Il-sung ruled with an iron fist for the 40 years since the Korea Peninsula was split, the entire length of his rule he had the full backing of China. In 1992 when the "great leader" died, and his reclusive son - Kim Jong-il - took over power and the international community watched and waited for a change in policy. Would North Korea engage South Korea? The answer was a warm maybe.

In 1994 the younger Kim signed an non-nuclear deal with the Clinton administration that broke down several years later out of mistrust. Japan wants a tough line drawn in the sand, South Korea pursued a useless "Sunshine" policy of reconciliation and China continued to support this suicidal regime. Then came the test heard around the world. Japan is worried, South Korea has scrapped its "Sunshine" policy and everyone else around the world has condemned this behavior, even China.

Don't for a moment think that this is just a regional problem that Asia should deal with on its own. This problem goes well beyond Asia, this problem is bigger than just North Korea. In the 1990s pakistani scientist sold crucial technology to North Korea. Now North Korea is selling missiles all around the world, and to all the wrong people (Pakistan, Syria, Iran). Could North Korea also be selling nuclear technology as well, a problem that could end up on the front door of the United States.

The plot thickens as the threat of proliferation of weapons technology could potentially be much more dangerous than anything North Korea could come up with on their own. Should North Korea be stopped in its tracks, or should we wait until another terrorist attack in Asia or the west?

With these events are occurring in the foreground, in the background there is nothing but indecisiveness, indecision and politics at its worst. With the 6 party talks are a complete failure, only China still has the ear of King Kim, ruler of a starving nation, commander of a million-man army, possessor of a nuclear bomb. Throughout the last decade it has been China who has talked of diplomacy. It was China who talked of patience. And now this test, after China stood firm with the rest of the world and gave warning in the weeks leading up to it.

Kim Jong-il has insulted the world and shown everyone that he will do as he pleases. He has asked for direct diplomacy with the United States, most likely in an effort to turn the taps of trade back on - thereby keeping Mr. Kim in power for at least a few more years. But is it aid North Korea really wants? Or do they just want the United States to bend?

And what about this aid that North Korea gets from China. Is this a potential bargaining chip? Most likely not, as North Korea is poor and hungry with or without Chinese aid. And without it there would almost surely be a collapse of the state sending millions of refugee's flooding over the Chinese border in search of nothing more than food.

So there lies the dilemma, a neighbor that won't talk, won't listen and who sits on a nuclear weapon. Of all the countries out there who have already had a say in this issue, including the useless United Nations, I firmly believe only China and step up to the plat and play ball with North Korea. Forget today's slap in the face, forget the past.

China, this vast neighbor to North Korea, has been proving for much of the last decade that it wants to be a player on the world stage. It wants membership to the big clubs. It's wants a larger piece of the say in world politics. Well, this is the best chance for China to earn its stripes. To step in to the ring and get a knock out, to bend the ear of young Kim and talk some sense in to him. In every big problem lies an bigger opportunity, and this is China's chance to show people that it can be listened to - that is has sway.

Now is indeed the time, with the Middle Kingdom propping up regimes in Sudan, Nigeria and Iran with financial aid and bundles of cash for natural resources, it would be nice to see China do something to prove to the international community that it is trying to make the world a less dangerous place. North Korea is that something, now is the time, this is the place.

Ryan Pyle
Skype: ryanpyle