Archive for September, 2009

Muslims, Jews join hands

September 23, 2009

In this season of Muslims celebrating the end of Ramadan, Jews repenting at the start of their new year, and US President Barack Obama indicating he’ll bang heads to bring Israelis and Palestinians back to the negotiating table, perhaps only an America abroad named Muhammad Cohen can put the whole picture in focus. My Rosh-Ramadan roadmap for peace column in The Guardian tries to pull the pieces together.

The Guardian, where I’ve been a contributor for just over a year, also ran my piece on the United Nation’s effort to combat global warming, Climate change’s cold reality, ahead of the UN climate summit.

Along with global economic recovery, Middle East peace and climate change give our world leaders a pretty full agenda for the UN General Assembly. Maybe this will be the year the UN and its members get something useful done. Well, this is the season for hopes and prayers…

Totally globalized native New Yorker and former broadcast news producer Muhammad Cohen is author of Hong Kong On Air, a novel set in his adopted hometown during the 1997 handover about television news, love, betrayal, financial crisis, and cheap lingerie.

No Friends of the Earth

September 18, 2009

I’m a true believer in saving the planet, active since the first Earth Day nearly 40 years ago, and participating in a beach clean up on September 19 as part of Clean Up the World Day. But overall, I’m absolutely sick about how little has been achieved in all these decades. The surge of attention to climate change is the best hope in my lifetime for meaningful progress to save the planet. But the UN and its green group allies will fail to seize this opportunity unless they dramatically change their approach, and do it fast.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has called a summit of world leaders for September 22 to energize stalled negotiations for a new global climate change treaty to be signed in Copenhagen in December. But the UN’s new treaty incorporates and deepens the flaws of its predecessor, the Kyoto Protocol. Kyoto placed restrictions on just 40 industrialized countries while letting the rest of world, including number one greenhouse gas emitter China, continue to spew at will. Those flaws led the US to shun Kyoto, leaving more than 70 percent global emission beyond the scope of Kyoto. Predictably, Kyoto has failed to cut greenhouse gas emissions.

For Kyoto’s successor, the stakes are even higher. Developing countries represent half of current emissions and up to three-fourths of projected emissions growth in the next decade, the crucial time to prevent a more than two degrees Celsius that scientists say would radically alter life as we know it. After Kyoto’s failure, you’d expect to lean on developing countries for cuts and reach out to the US, recognizing its potential to provide missing leadership and technological innovation. Instead, the UN embraced nearly 1,000 non-governmental organizations (NGOs), most of which demonize the US and champion “climate justice,” the right of developing countries to destroy as much of the environment as industrialized countries did. So Kyoto’s developing country exemption remains, along with a new demand that the US and its industrialized allies pay an estimated US$140 billion a year to developing countries; the UN and NGOs stand ready to serve as siphons – I mean vehicles – for that funding.

Little wonder industrialized nations haven’t warmed to the talks, even though the Obama administration wants to address climate change constructively. The UN and its NGO allies are letting their politics get in the way of finding solutions. For both, failure on this issue would extend a decades-long legacy of futility. Given their record of failure, most green groups should disband if they truly want to help Mother Earth.

Totally globalized native New Yorker and former broadcast news producer Muhammad Cohen is author of Hong Kong On Air, a novel set in his adopted hometown during the 1997 handover about television news, love, betrayal, financial crisis, and cheap lingerie.

Don’t boo Andy Murray because he’s Scottish

September 11, 2009

Watching the US Open tennis tournament, once Taylor Dent beat Ivan Navarro to set up a third round match with Andy Murray, I found myself hoping the New York crowd would boo Murray off the court. Not just because Dent is an American and the tournament’s top feel-good story after two operations for back trouble that could have left him in a wheelchair. Not just because I don’t like Murray’s playing style, personality, bad teeth, or rock star entourage before he’s topped the charts. No, I wanted the fans in my home town to bury Murray because he’s from Scotland. But as soon as I thought it, I knew it was wrong.

Scotland, you’ll recall, released convicted Lockerbie bomber Abdel Baset al-Megrahi from prison last month. Most of the 270 victims of the Christmas week 1988 airliner bombing were Americans, bound for New York’s John F Kennedy International Airport, about 15 kilometers from center court at Flushing Meadow (note from Queens native: Flushing Meadow is correct; Flushing Meadows is wrong, no matter how often it’s repeated). Scottish Justice Minister Kenny Macaskill marked himself for near-universal approbation with his smug claims of superior compassion for al-Megrahi while showing none for the victims of the cowardly attack and their families.

Documents released since the release show the British government, Murray’s other national flag, shares culpability in the abhorrent decision. Moreover, the release seems so wrong, so ill-conceived, so irrational, that suspicion lingers – and evidence mounts – that there must have been an under the table deal with Libya, trading al-Megrahi’s freedom for oil or some other commercial consideration.

Americans and decent people all over the world have a right to be angry at the governments of Scotland and Britain. But that doesn’t give them any right to be angry at Scottish people like Andy Murray. Americans, of all people, should understand that.

For most of the George W Bush administration, America was the most vilified nation on earth due to the invasion of Iraq. (For some, Ameriphobia dates to Vietnam, Hiroshima, the dawn of the military industrial-industrial complex, or back to that Scotsman Adam Smith.) As an American living overseas, whenever nationality was mentioned, I took great pains to explain I didn’t support Bush or the Iraq invasion. I didn’t want to get blamed for the stupid things my government did.

Holding civilians responsible for the sins of their governments is precisely what terrorists do. Al-Megrahi and his co-conspirators, or whoever bombed Pan Am flight 103, didn’t ask any of the passengers what they thought about US support for Israel or its enmity toward Libya. No one checked the nationalities of workers filing into New York’s World Trade Center twin towers on that clear morning eight years ago. They became victims simply because they were presumed to be Americans by madmen who considered their nationality a criminal act.

Like ordinary folks, athletes don’t deserve to be victimized for their citizenship, but it happens. Recall the 1972 Olympics in Munich or the March ambush of Sri Lanka’s national cricket team playing in Pakistan. Tennis has escaped the violence but not the politics. Israeli players are routinely denied entry visas for tournaments in Arab countries. In the Fed Cup, the women’s international team competition, Indonesia chose to forfeit rather than play in Israel. On the other end of the scale, Murray, like his British number one predecessor Tim Henman, faces extraordinary pressure from the home fans at Wimbledon, the biggest tournament in tennis, where no British man has won the title since 1936.

Some years ago, I experienced a version of politics and sports mixing badly on a basketball court in Washington, DC. Some guy I’d never played with began roughing me up from the first dribble, pushing and elbowing in an otherwise relaxed game. I’m not that good a player, so hardly merited the special attention. It took me a couple of points to realize it had to be because I was white (the only white player in the game) and this young black man hated white people, or at least hated playing basketball with them. I’d never done anything to him, and I wasn’t a racist (certainly not as far as he knew). But he judged me solely on my membership in a certain target group and acted out, just as the terrorists do.

Athletes, like the rest of us, deserve to be judged on who they are, not what they are or where they’re from. So fellow New Yorkers and tennis fans everywhere, show your sportsmanship and enlightenment: don’t boo Andy Murray just because he’s Scottish. Boo him just because he’s Andy Murray, and delight with me that he crashed out of the US Open in the fourth round.

Totally globalized native New Yorker and former broadcast news producer Muhammad Cohen is author of Hong Kong On Air, a novel set in his adopted hometown during the 1997 handover about television news, love, betrayal, financial crisis, and cheap lingerie.

China pulls back the media veil

September 7, 2009

Bob Green, founder of Hong Kong’s Amazing Grace Elephant Company, worked during the Cultural Revolution as a radio newsman for US network NBC. He and his colleagues regularly drove a van with a long antenna to a mountaintop near Hong Kong’s border with the mainland to hold a teacup against the Bamboo Curtain, monitoring scratchy broadcasts of Radio Beijing.

That scramble for hints of news from China is a far cry from the current unrest in Uruumqi, where Chinese government media is feeding international broadcasters demonstration footage and man on the street sound bites from Xinjiang Province’s capital. When large scale clashes between Xinjiang’s majority ethnic Uighurs and China’s majority Han Chinese began in July, China facilitated foreign media travel to report from this area of remote northwestern China.

Some observers attribute the change to lessons Chinese authorities learned from their unsuccessful media clampdown in response to rioting in Tibet in early 2008. But the trend dates back to March 2007 rioting in Zhushan in Hunan Province, as I noted then in Asia Times.

When China opens up is less interesting than why. The Zhushan riots erupted over economic issues, specifically local bus fares, at a time when there was a lot rumbling about restive Chinese workers. China’s rulers took the opportunity to show foreign investors that they still knew how to handle unrest over pocketbook issues.

When the Tibet rioting broke out, the combination of pre-Olympic jitters and the sharply drawn disagreement between China (supported by the vast majority of its citizens) and the rest of the world over Tibet instinctively triggered a media blackout. But once China realized that it couldn’t block the news, it tested many of the same media management techniques that it’s now using more successfully in Xinjiang.

For example, in Tibet China learned that tightly controlled press tours can backfire. Reporters in Lhasa glossed over the spoon-fed government gruel in favor of unscripted nibbles with disgruntled monks. So, in Urumqui, China cut reporters loose with plenty of monitoring but little overt guidance, making it harder for them to find unfavorable stories and for unwelcome sources to find them.

In its Tibet and Xinjiang riot narratives, China portrays ungrateful backward minority people resisting Chinese efforts to lift them out of darkness and poverty by (ignorantly) attacking innocent Han Chinese. This argument plays very well in the domestic audience. It may also resonate in the overseas Chinese community, particularly in Asia, where many believe Chinese racial and cultural superiority contributes to their economic success. (See Coloring Judgment [July 12, 2009] on this blog for the Malaysian example.)

Overseas, affection for the Dalai Lama and Tibet culture undermines the portrait of Tibetan inferiority. But in Xinjiang, giving reporters the opportunity to interview Chinese victims of violence and conciliatory Uighurs paints a sympathetic portrait of earnest working people being victimized by barbaric thugs, eliciting global sympathy.

For Tibet, China’s violent separatist agitator argument also swells nationalist pride domestically but falls flat overseas. The Dalai Lama, after all, is a Nobel Peace laureate. In Xinjiang, Muslim Uighurs provide bait for links to al-Qaeda and other violent Islamists, and China consistently invites media to make the connection. Moreover, there’s no Uighur Dalai Lama.

While watching nuance and spin, remember that China still controls the big picture for all media. Every local and foreign reporter knows that crossing certain lines risks expulsion or worse, but China rarely draws those lines clearly or in advance. So reporters generally limit themselves more than government rules would dare mandate. Reporters that exceed the limits of tolerance don’t report for very long. That’s the autocrats’ ultimate weapon in media management, and China is never afraid to go nuclear to control the news.

Totally globalized native New Yorker and former broadcast news producer Muhammad Cohen is author of Hong Kong On Air, a novel set in his adopted hometown during the 1997 handover about television news, love, betrayal, financial crisis, and cheap lingerie.

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