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Korea and Japan: The History Wars

Nation-states, like four-year-olds, find it very hard to admit they are in the wrong and apologise. Adult intervention often helps, but all Japan and South Korea have is US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (who tried and failed to mediate a week ago in Bangkok). So the trade war between the two grows and festers.

There are obvious similarities with the trade war that Donald Trump is waging against China, with Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe playing the Trump role: blustering bully with no clear game plan. Like the Trump trade war, too, the Japan-South Korea confrontation threatens to destabilise both East Asian security arrangements and the global market.

Yet the confrontation between Tokyo and Seoul is not really about trade at all. It’s about the difficult history of relations between an ex-imperial power, Japan, and its former colony, Korea.

Japan is existentially in the wrong in this relationship, because it seized control of Korea in 1905 and ruled it, sometimes with great brutality, until it was defeated in the Second World War in 1945. But Tokyo doesn’t like to be reminded of all that, and claims that it discharged whatever moral debt it owed when it paid $500 million to Seoul in 1965.

Koreans take a different view, of course, but the truth is that the victims of Japan’s wartime behaviour were sold out by their own government. $500 million was a lot of money, more than the South Korean government’s entire annual budget. The newly installed military-led regime in South Korea needed the money and accepted Japan’s terms.

Almost all the money went to building up South Korea’s new export industries. Japan offered to pay compensation directly to Korean individuals who had suffered forced labour and other injustices during the Second World War, but Seoul preferred to take a lump sum (and spend almost all the money on development). Many of the victims got little or nothing.

The resentment this caused was easily diverted onto Japan, which had driven a hard bargain and failed to accompany the compensation with an apology. Anti-Japanese hostility occasionally boiled over in notorious cases like the ‘comfort women’ (young Korean women who had been abducted to serve as sexual slaves for the Japanese army), but it is always bubbling away underneath.

Fast forward to last October, when South Korea’s Supreme Court ruled that the lump-sum, government-to-government deal of 1965 did not cover damages for the mental anguish of individual wartime labourers. Subsequent rulings have authorised South Korean individuals to claim compensation from the Japanese industries that used their labour by forced legal sales of those companies’ assets in South Korea

South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in did not seek this ruling from the Supreme Court, which is entirely independent. The Court was clearly stretching the law almost to breaking point, but in practical political terms he could not disown it.

Japan, on the other hand, was horrified by the ruling. Accepting it would open to door to huge claims for compensation from people who had suffered ‘mental anguish’ from the Japanese occupation in all the other countries Japan invaded between 1937 and 1945. It also felt betrayed: half a century ago it had paid out a lot of money to extinguish any further claims like these.

There has never been much love lost between Japanese and Koreans, but the two countries have almost always managed to keep important issues like trade and national security separate from the emotional flare-ups that make the relationship so fraught. Last month, however, Prime Minister Abe completely lost the plot. He began imposing restrictions on Japanese exports to South Korea.

They are relatively minor restrictions. Three classes of chemicals essential to making semiconducters that South Korea buys from Japan now require export licences. A minor bureaucratic hurdle, unless Japan stops approving the licenses (which it has not done).

More recently Japan has removed South Korea from its ‘whitelist’ of countries that are allowed to buy goods that can be diverted for military use with minimal restrictions. Again, no big deal. Just another little hurdle to cross, meant to rebuke and annoy South Korea, not to cause serious injury.

But it has been very successful in annoying South Koreans, who have spontaneously organised a quite effective boycott of Japanese-made goods. And petty though its origins may be, this confrontation is now raising the prospect that these long established trading partners, both closely allied to the United States and both anxious about China’s rise and the threat of North Korea, are going to have a real trade war.

Which, with help from the bigger trade war Donald Trump started with China, may be enough to tip the world economy into a deep recession.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraph 5. (“Koreans…terms”)

Gwynne Dyer’s new book is ‘Growing Pains: The Future of Democracy (and Work)’.

Hong Kong: Purely Symbolic

The anti-government demonstrations in Hong Kong are now eight weeks old and still going strong, but the level of violence is rising.

A lot of the violence is down to the police and to triad gangs who were hired to attack the demonstrators, of course, but now the People’s Daily, the official mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party, is demanding that the Hong Kong government “punish lawbreakers regardless of whether they hold up the banner of ‘freedom and democracy’.”

Nobody expects a replay of 1989’s Tiananmen Square massacre, but weekend after weekend the confrontation grows more tense. Last week China’s Defense Ministry even warned that it might use troops to quell the unrest, saying the protests were “intolerable” and that the army would mobilize troops to restore public order if requested by the Hong Kong government.

Yang Guang, spokesman for Beijing’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, followed the paranoid official line on Monday, blaming “irresponsible people” in the West for stirring up trouble in a bid to “contain China’s development.” But when asked if Beijing would send troops in to stop the protests, he only repeated that the Hong Kong government could ask for help if it needed it.

This is a major crisis in the only part of mainland China that is not ruled directly by the Communist Party, but Beijing clearly does not want to go nuclear if it can avoid it. Which it probably can, because at this point the whole confrontation has become purely symbolic.

It started out in early June as a real struggle over an important issue. The Hong Kong government introduced a bill that would allow criminal suspects in Hong Kong to be extradited to China and face trial in Communist Party-controlled mainland courts (which have a 99% conviction rate). Everybody assumed that it was acting on orders from Beijing.

The protesters were out in the streets at once. The rule of law still exists in Hong Kong, but nobody would be safe if they could be extradited to the People’s Republic at Beijing’s whim.

Hong Kong’s Chief Executive, Carrie Lam, backed down very quickly. She “suspended” the draft extradition bill, and various people close to her reminded the media that it would automatically die when the current session of the legislature ends next July. But she did not formally withdraw the bill, presumably because that would involve too grave a loss of face for the regime in Beijing.

Since then, the demos have been purely symbolic. The extradition bill is not going to happen, but the protesters want Lam to kill it officially and publicly. Even if she complied, she could always bring it back in the next session of the legislature (whose members have to be approved by Beijing). So even if they win, they have no guarantees for the future. Why bother?

Hong Kong was not a democracy under British rule before 1997, and it is not one now. But it was and still is a place where the rule of law prevails, the media are free, and individual rights are respected. However, this special status within China, which was supposed to last for fifty years after the hand-over, has been under growing pressure from Beijing since the rise of President Xi Jinping.

Xi, who has abolished term limits on the presidency, is relentlessly centralising power in China, presumably in the belief that this is the only way to preserve Communist rule in the long run.

He has turned the heavily Muslim province of Xinjiang into an enormous open-air prison, and he is building an online system of ‘social credit’ that will score citizens on their degree of compliance with the regime’s goals and norms. People with low scores will have a hard time in life. And he is nibbling away at Hong Kong’s civil rights, because they set a bad example for other Chinese.

The demonstrators in Hong Kong have carried on because they are trying to make a point: that interfering with Hong Kong’s freedoms is more trouble than it’s worth. So long as Hong Kong remains economically important to the People’s Republic, they have a chance of succeeding, but they can never expect a decisive victory.

Seven and a half million people in Hong Kong are never going to force the Beijing regime to do anything. With the right tactics, however, they can probably preserve their own freedoms, and continue to serve as living proof that an ethnic Chinese society does not have to be a tyranny.

It’s a balancing act. They must never challenge the Communist regime’s ultimate control, but from time to time they have to demonstrate to Beijing that tolerating a local aberration like civil rights in Hong Kong is less costly politically than ending it by force.

They have done enough to achieve that for now, and it’s probably time to stop.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 2 and 14. (“A lot…democracy”; and “Seven…tyranny”)

Gwynne Dyer’s new book is ‘Growing Pains: The Future of Democracy (and Work)’.

Trump, Tariffs and How to Start a War

The best way to deal with Donald Trump, especially if you are a foreign government negotiating trade issues, is to give him a little win. It doesn’t have to be big and important; he’s mainly interested in declaring a triumph, and he’ll supply the hot air to inflate your little concession into an allegedly major defeat free of charge. Just remember to look crest-fallen, and you’re home and dry.

Thus, for example, Trump’s recent ‘triumph’ over Mexico. He threatens escalating tariffs against Mexico, the Mexicans cave in after ten days, and the border problem is solved (until the next time he needs it). Only the nerds notice that the Mexican ‘concessions’ are almost all actions that Mexico had already promised to take in quiet, orderly discussions with the United States between December and March.

The Canadians did even better when renegotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Trump called it the “the worst deal ever signed,” but several clauses in the old treaty that Ottawa disliked were dropped. The only Canadian concession was to give U.S. dairy producers access to 10% of the Canadian milk market (that’s just 3 million people) – if they can persuade those Canadians to buy their bovine growth hormone-treated milk.

A very small price to pay, but nobody in Canada was so foolish as to crow out loud that they had seen the Americans off. The Canadian negotiators looked suitably hangdog and defeated, and Trump claimed the credit for a “great deal” and a “historic transaction”. Game, set and match to Ottawa.

And so to the grand drama of Trump’s tariff war with China. This one ought to be a no-brainer, because China is in an extremely vulnerable position. Its exports to America are worth almost three times as much as US exports to China, so it really cannot afford to lose the U.S. market. Chinese President Xi Jinping should just give Trump enough to make him happy – he’s easily pleased – and move on to the next problem.

To the extent that Donald Trump calculates his moves beforehand, this would have been his calculation, and it is logically correct. But it didn’t work out that way: after a year of escalation and counter-escalation, the two countries are nearing the point where they will have imposed 25% tariffs on all of each other’s exports. What went wrong?

Trump issued his usual threats and was the first to escalate at every step of the dance, but if the Mexicans and the Canadians can work around his histrionics, why can’t the Chinese?

Maybe it’s just pride: Xi simply can’t abide the vision of Trump capering with joy as he celebrates his victory over the Chinese. Or maybe it’s fear: letting Trump have a victory (and a real one, this time) would so humiliate Xi in the eyes of his own colleagues and rivals that his own position would be in danger.

It’s probably the latter. The negotiations seemed to be going well, with Trump predicting an “epic” deal and praising his dear friend Xi. Then suddenly in early May the White House complained that China was trying to re-negotiate points previously agreed, and the whole thing fell apart. It feels like Xi lost an argument at home – which would imply that he is considerably less secure in power than everybody assumed.

In either case, Xi is making a big mistake. The Chinese economy is not doing well. Factory output is declining, and new car sales fell last year for the first time since 1990. China’s total debt, even on untrustworthy official figures, is nearing three times annual GDP, which is the level where panic usually sets in. In fact, it’s the level at which Japan’s three-decade economic depression began in 1991.

Strip out all the unproductive investment and creative accountancy, and Chinese GDP grew last year by less than 2%. Employment is stagnant, retail sales are falling, the stock market dropped by a quarter last year. This is not an economy in good shape to withstand a prolonged trade war.

The great fear of the Chinese Communist Party is that people will turn against the regime if the economy stalls and living standards stop rising. They certainly don’t love the regime. Why else would they obey it? This theory may be tested to destruction in the next few years.

So if Xi is not free to do a trade deal with the US and the Chinese economy tanks, what must he do to save Communist rule and his own power? He will need a foreign war, or at least the threat of one, in order to get nationalism on his side. Not war with the United States, of course. That would be crazy. But Taiwan would do nicely.

And this is one that you really can’t blame on Trump.
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To shorten to 675 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 4. (“The Canadians…Ottawa”)

Gwynne Dyer’s new book is ‘Growing Pains: The Future of Democracy (and Work)’.

Xinjiang – The Silence of the Muslims

Muslim governments were not silent when Burma murdered thousands of Rohingya, its Muslim minority, and expelled 700,000 of them across the border into Bangladesh. They were unanimous in their anger when the Trump administration moved the US embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. But they are almost silent on China’s attempt to suppress Islam in its far western province, Xinjiang.

It is the most brazen frontal assault on Muslims in modern history. Up to a million Chinese citizens have been sent to concentration camps in Xinjiang for the non-crime of being Muslim. They are also guilty of the non-crime of being a ten-million-strong ethnic minority, mostly Uighurs but including a million and a half Kazakhs, who do not feel sufficiently ‘Chinese’, but Islam is the focus of the state’s anger.

And in the face of this repression, the 49 Muslim-majority countries of the world have said almost nothing. Malaysia refused to send a dozen Uighur refugees back to China last year, four members of Kuwait’s parliament made a public protest in January, and Turkey loudly condemned China’s behaviour last month, but the other 46 governments have assiduously avoided the issue. It is very strange.

When Turkey finally did cut loose, foreign ministry spokesman Hami Aksoy said: “It is no longer a secret that more than a million Uighur Turks exposed to arbitrary arrests are subjected to torture and political brainwashing” in Chinese prisons….“The reintroduction of concentration camps in the 21st century and the systematic assimilation policy of Chinese authorities against the Uighur Turks is a great embarrassment for humanity.”

But even then, other Muslim countries remained silent. With the honourable exception of Al-Jazeera, the issue is rarely even mentioned in the Arab media, and popular awareness of what is happening is minimal in big Muslim countries like Iran, Pakistan and Indonesia. Why?

It’s true that the mass repression of the Uighurs and other Muslims in China only became known abroad in the past year, although it was already state policy at least two years ago.

It’s true, too, that a lot of the evidence is circumstantial. While there are plenty of first-person reports of the brutal treatment of the Uighurs, for example, the estimates of how many are actually imprisoned – “up to a million”, which would be one-tenth of all the Muslims in Xinjiang – are really estimates of how many the camps could hold, based on satellite observations of their size.

China denies both the scale and the purpose of the repression. These camps, it says, are ‘vocational training centres’ that tackle ‘extremism’ through ‘thought transformation’ (what used to be called ‘brainwashing’, an old political tradition in Communist China).

The detainees are held indefinitely – there are no formal charges or sentences, but hardly anybody has been released in the past couple of years – and are allegedly volunteers. They are ‘trainees’, said the top Chinese official in Xinjiang, Shohrat Zakir, last October, who are grateful for the opportunity to “reflect on their mistakes.”

Shohrat Zakir is obviously a Muslim name: as always, there are collaborators and careerists among the oppressed. But it is a classic late colonial situation, with a Communist twist.

The population of Xinjiang was over 90% Muslim and Turkic-speaking when the new Communist regime in China reconquered the region in 1949. Beijing’s original solution, as in Tibet to the south, was to drown the native population in Han Chinese immigrants: Muslims are now only 45% of the population.

When the inevitable push-back came – anti-Chinese race riots and some terrorist attacks – the Chinese regime responded with intense surveillance and repression of the native population. Part of the package was an attempt to curb Islamic observance and the use of the local Turkic language. And when that wasn’t producing the desired result, Beijing began expanding the ‘re-education centres’ that now hold up to a tenth of the Muslim population.

There is nothing surprising in all this. Assimilation to the Han Chinese norm was the policy of all Chinese governments even before the Communist takeover. What is surprising is the response – or rather, the lack of response – of Muslim governments elsewhere.

Why are they silent? Mainly because China is lavishing loans and grants on them: $20 billion in loans to Arab countries, a rumoured $6 billion to Pakistan, even more to the nearby Muslim countries of Central Asia ($27 billion in joint industrial projects in Kazakhstan alone). They need the money, so they shut up. So do their tame media.

When the de facto dictator of Saudi Arabia, Prince Mohammed bin Salman, visited
China recently, he endorsed China’s right to take “anti-terrorism” and “de-extremism” measures in Xinjiang. Of course, he needs China’s support in fighting off the accusations that he ordered the murder of Jamal Khashoggi even more than he needs the money.

Xinjiang’s Muslims have been abandoned by the ‘umma’, the world community of Muslims. They are on their own, and they are suffering.

To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 9, 10 and 15. (“The detainees…twist”; and “When…money”)

Gwynne Dyer’s new book is ‘Growing Pains: The Future of Democracy (and Work)’.