Monday, December 29, 2014

Obama’s score cards



Obama has been the US President for 6 years and has been the subject of fierce criticisms from the Right and sometimes from the Left for most of the 6 years.  It is probably sufficient at this point to evaluate his performance, even with two more years in the WH. 

To begin with, it is not off the mark to say he qualifies as a war criminal under any conventional definitions or if he were the president of a weak country.  Giving Obama the Nobel Prize in Peace is, in contrast to popular thinking, entirely consistent with the Prize’s character.  Obama has largely continued Bush’s war policies after Bush, often even exceeding in the details.  He has bombed many countries, killing many civilians, even with his definition of military aged men as automatic enemies.  But this is naturally true for any US presidents, and you are a war criminal only if NYT says you are.  So why beat the dead horse here? 

On the other hand, anybody other than Obama residing in the WH right now is likely to have been more blood thirsty than he is.  Can you imagine what Hillary, McCain, or Romney would have done?  So, Obama does deserve a few credits, even if not everything he claims for or what some supporters or critics say.

1. Ending the Iraq War, notwithstanding the recent ISIS situations.  Obama claims he withdrew the US troops from Iraq, and his critics in the Right said he was wrong to do so.   But the agreement with the Iraqi government was negotiated with Bush, and Obama actually tried but failed to get Iraqis’ concessions on troops, so the US had no choice but to leave.  It is disingenuous for Obama to claim credit, and it is also disingenuous for critics to blast him for this. 
Obama’s score card: 30 (from 0 to 100, with 100 being the most humanly decent action).

2. Afghan war.  Simply natural flows from Bush’s and Obama’s policies.  Less US ground assaults, but more drone attacks.  No more renditions, just bombs away.  This also applies to other countries US had attacked and is currently attacking. 
Obama’s score card: 0.

3. Iran.  Obama has been negotiating and so far resisted bombing and even blocked the Israelis from doing so.  This is something any of his major presidential challengers and presidents before and after Obama would have done differently.  Hillary is always a hawk, McCain sang “bomb bomb bomb” in 2008, and Romney, largely a novice, would offer no resistance from conventional Washington thinking.  The only thing preventing Obama from resolving the Iranian nuclear issue is Israel keeps bogus documents and accusations alive, and Obama has no stomach to defy it and the long standing US hostility towards Iran.  So the peace prospect remains dim.   Still, we need to consider the fact that anybody, even the President, is constrained by circumstances, conventions, and the system.  So Obama has done something unthinkable, whether or not he possesses the courage to finish the right thing.
Obama’s score card: 90.
4. Cuba.  Obama announced in Dec 2014 to start normalization with Cuba, reversing a US policy of the past 50 years.  This is another remarkable thing Obama has done, or said so far.  On the other hand, this is something recent US presidents had thought of: clearly the right thing to do in their mind and with the support of most Americans.  But they failed to act because of a few vocal Cuban-Americans in FL.  In reality, this is not as a big deal as the Iran issue, and maybe the 2014 mid-term congressional losses spurred Obama, but it still requires courage. 
Obama’s score card: 70.

5. Syria.  Obama has taken side in the Syrian civil war but resisted bombing Assad’s forces directly.  The UN have blocked the authorization of force, having learned the Libya lesson, so Obama has a cover and can’t claim much of the credit.  Yet, a notable episode is the so-called Syrian chemical attack in August, 2013.  Obama had previously set a red line for the use of WMD, which was silly: what is the difference?  But when the reports of chemical attack came in, Obama was forced to say something and act, and he acted belligerently, even when the evidence then and till now never implicated Assad.  With Obama ready to pull the trigger, it was Russia that actually saved him from being Bush, and it did require brain and gut from Obama to climb down.  Brain: Obama likely knew soon afterwards that the evidence against Assad was weak to nil, so he and his people never claimed as much later.  But US presidents knew the initial reports to be wrong all the time, think LBJ, but few had the gut to reverse course.  Thus, it did take Obama nerve to correct his own mistake.  Critics all blasted Obama for drawing a red line then failing to act on it, but few considers whether it is the right thing to do, or is the credibility of a president more important than human decency?
Obama’s score card: 60.

6. Healthcare.  ACA is Obama’s signature domestic achievement.  It is controversial only because it is a big issue affecting everybody and so many interest groups.  Considering how expensive and how ineffective American healthcare system is, reform is inevitable, but if you want to enroll more people but keep the existing system largely intact, you have to have individual mandates, hence, taxes and penalties.  ACA provisions are reasonable or supportable for anybody, but the only real objections are about cost.  Can we afford it?  Many people object to the extra, usually small expenses and further elevate the issue to a matter of personal freedom.  At the end of the day, this is something people need to consider: what kind of country should the US be, and is healthcare a right?  Regardless, Obama deserves credit for doing something instead of just talking, even if his negotiation and promotion of ACA has been faulty.
Obama’s score card: 70.

7. Surveillance, transparency, and torture.  Obama campaigned to have the most transparent administration ever, but his is arguably the least in recent memories.  He has come down hard on unofficial leaks, while official leaks continue.  What has Obama done with regard to Snowden’s leaks of NSA?  Nothing, except trying to get Snowden.  In fairness, this kind of NSA activities have gone on forever, increased with technical feasibilities.  Critics of ACA often have no qualm with NSA, even though NSA has been infringing on privacy and freedom much longer.  Then the CIA torture issue.  Obama banned it after he took office, but it is largely ceremonial, as few will think the US is no longer engaged in such acts, just that no longer an official figure like Cheney is openly advocating it.  This remains a system matter, remember Abu Ghraib, by the US military and other agencies?  Obama’s position rang hollow with his refusal prosecute anybody in the Bush administration and senior CIA officials. 
Obama’s score card: 0.

8. Other policies.  Despite a minority of points above, Obama has continued long-standing domestic and international US policies for the most part.  Understandably, it is hard to change or defy a system.  Notably is the SONY-North Korea-Obama spar in Dec 2014.  In short, SONY computer system was recently hacked, and North Korea was suspected because of a SONY movie “The Interview”, and Obama retaliated by blocking North Korea internet access.  But the role of North Korea in SONY hacking is never proven, and the evidence is not even much or strong to begin with.  Obama likely felt he must do something, or anything, to placate his critics, so he chose internet outage as a punishment.  At least it is not bombs, but wait, North Korea has THE bomb too!
Obama’s score card: same as every other president.

In summary, Obama is the best anyone can have among the few choices there were and all recent US presidents.  He did or didn’t do certain things anybody else wouldn’t or would have done.  His policies along with his skin color have promoted enough animosities in the American political system that it is largely paralyzed for the past several years.  While Obama can still do something in the next two years to further distinguish himself in history, the long term prospect of peace is not promising and likely worsened after 2016.

Monday, May 5, 2014

Losses and near losses by the Chinese table tennis teams

Chinese table tennis teams, men or women, don't lose often, so it is a big deal when they did or nearly so.

The 2014 World Team Championship could have been one such loss for the men's team.  The final score is 3:1, but if going to 2:2, high chance Germany would have won.  The key is that Zhang Jike being used as the second single was a baffling choice.

Zhang Jike is miles ahead of any active players in terms of winning major titles, except for the semi-retired Wang Hao, but he may also have the dubious title of the most lucky overachiever (previous blog "Table Tennis and Tennis, all in one Paris, 2013").  Regardless of the past, he hasn't been that good for a year or in this tournament.  He almost lost a point against Austria, and lost a game to Taipei's third, pretty weak single in the semi-final.  The same lineup against Taipei would have been non-controversial in the final against Germany, but changing that and playing Zhang in such a form for two potential matches can't be a good decision on the part of Liu Guoliang, the Chinese coach, win or lose.

Form aside, Zhang Jike has the worst records against Ovtcharov and Boll compared to Ma Long and Xu Xin, for a reason: his style of playing.  Zhang is a counter-puncher, control player, a stronger version of Kong Linghui, backhand-oriented.  As a result, it is not that he can't beat a power hitter like Ovtcharov or a skillful, left-handed Boll: he just has to work really harder.  Unlike Ma Long, whose only real question is whether he can maintain his quickness in the next match.

Ma Long must have been penciled in early on against Germany by Liu Guoliang, so the question is why Xu Xin, who was clearly playing much better than Zhang in previous rounds and played the first point in the semi, was the third single in the final?  A worry might be that Xu Xin's backhand be exploited by the Germans.  This worry is valid for most penholders, but not necessarily for Xu Xin.  For Xu Xin is a left-hander, likes to rally, and runs very well.  His only problem is to use his backhand more to save his knees.  The German players are used to Zhang Jike and Ma Long's styles, but not to Xu Xin's.  Franziska, the third single who won a point against Japan yesterday, was clueless against Xu's top spins, swinging and missing a lot. 

As the match went, first was Ma against Boll, a replay of 2013 Worlds Singles quarterfinal.  Boll was much slower this time, losing 0:3.  Maybe Boll is no longer young, and his two points against Japan yesterday was too much for the body.  The second was Zhang against Ovtcharov.  Can't say Ovtcharov was playing over his head: he was probably on the good, bronze-medal form of 2012 London.  Zhang was content to block from his backhand side much of the match, but Ovtcharov didn't miss, winning 3:0.  After Xu's easy win, the crucial point is Ma against Ovtcharov.  Ovtcharov lost a close first game and quickly the next two, ending the championship.  It was almost funny that Ma had so many net and edge points against him in the six sets he played, but he won all six. 

A variable is Ma vs Boll.  Boll served too many long balls to Ma's forehand, with disastrous results.  If Boll had had worked Ma Long well like in 2013, extending to 2:3, after the next, two quick matches, Ma could have been a bit tired against Ovtcharov, then Ovtcharov would have had a better chance of an upset.  If Zhang vs Boll in the fifth match, you can bet Boll would be hell bent to beat Zhang, as he did in 2012 London.  Then China would lose the championship, for using Zhang, not Xu, as the second single.  Ma Long saved the day, but Liu Guoliang knew that he dodged a bullet.

An analogous example is 2001 Worlds China vs South Korea in the semi.  China's first single, Kong Linghui, lost to two Korean power hitters, people he always had trouble playing, and it took Liu Guozheng and miracles for China to go through.  China should have used Ma Lin or Wang Liqin as the second single.

There were still quite a few other 3:1 and 3:2 wins by China, yet not every one deserved a second guess.  Sometimes you used your best lineup but your opponents just played excellent.  But there are indeed real losses in recent years, the 2000 men's team and 2010 women's team.

The 2000 men's 2:3 loss to Sweden had a few excuses.  The first is that they shouldn't even be playing in 2000.  The original schedule was in 1999, and Liu Guoliang actually won the singles title in that Worlds.  It instead played in early 2000, a time in the year Chinese not in peaks due to the traditional Spring Festival.  But the more pertinent were that Liu Guoliang had to experiment with a new rubber in 2000 and at the time also was under a cloud of drug suspicion, not a public information then.  Cai Zhenhua, the Chinese coach had to use Liu for his name, even though he likely knew Liu was no longer the player he was in 1999.  Liu lost both his matches, and Kong Linghui lost one point in that final.

The 2010 women's loss is an entirely different matter, due to a strategic blunder by the Chinese team to promote two young players, Ding Ning and Liu Shiwen, too quickly.  And one has to acknowledge that Wang Yuegu played the best match of her career in that final.  And Feng Tianwei.  After that loss, an older player Li Xiaoxia was "re-discovered", and she is now the only active player with all the major titles.

One underlying issue in these matches is the argument between veteran-safe vs young-risky selections. The coaches largely adopt the veteran-safe option, with the up-and-coming as the third single.  It gave more dramas but most of the time worked out OK.  The only time the young-risky option was deployed, the outcome was poor (2010 women).  Thus, Liu Guoliang explained after the match that Xu Xin was the third single because he had never played in the final before.  This thinking, however, has holes beyond the ones explained above, for it betrays your lineup completely before the final.  Xu Xin was fully capable in the semi and not known for losing under pressure, while Zhang Jike had lost in teams finals before.  Anyway you see it, Liu Guoliang is getting too conservative and too predictable.  It is good he has a strong team.  If it were in the 1980s China vs Sweden, Sweden would have won more. The last point to note is that the 2010 women's final still featured the best, albeit very young, Chinese players at the time.  The mistake was made before that championship, not during.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Three songs that last forever



In 1985, “We are the world” was made as a charity single and became an instant classic worldwide.  Inspired, Lo Ta-yu (罗大佑), probably the greatest musician ever from Taiwan, wrote “明天会更好” or “Tomorrow will be better” (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lEDZyIUbSd0). Then, in 1986 and in honor of UN’s International Year of Peace, mainland China produced “让世界充满爱” or “Let the world be filled with love” (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_nIDC4wqxpg).  All three were of the same theme and format, originally recorded by dozens of singers (over 60 in the case of “明天会更好/Tomorrow will be better” and 100 for “世界充满爱/Let the world be filled with love”).

I hadn’t heard the two Chinese songs since 1992 and never watched any video, at least not in any significant length, until 2014, and only watched “We are the world” on TV a couple of times in between.  I am struck by how much has (not) changed through the years.  Some of the singers are no longer with us.  Amazing how some of the big stars looked like back then.  And how much peace is desired but lacking now as then.  But just the songs for today.

世界充满爱/Let the world be filled with love” is forever compared to “明天会更好/Tomorrow will be better” for good reasons.  People, while professing a love for both, would often like one better than the other, a matter of subjective tastes.  Although in fairness, this is almost like comparing Ernest Hemingway’s “A farewell to arms” to his "A very short story".  “Tomorrow will be better” and “We are the world” are typically singles, each about 5 min (depending on their versions), while “Let the world be filled with love” is 16 min, composed of three related yet distinct parts, similar to a mini-musical.

Analogy to “A farewell to arms” is apt because “世界充满爱/Let the world be filled with love” is one of the softest and sweetest songs one will ever hear.  The music flows like a smooth river on a clear day, particularly the second, arguably the best part, of the song.  The lyrics in Chinese are simple yet inspire imaginations.  On this front, “We are the world” is as plain as water, while “Tomorrow will be better” is sophisticated and loaded. 

An objection to “Let the world be filled with love” is that the transition between the three parts is not always seamless.  This is likely unavoidable since it packs three songs into one, although the over-arching aim is unmistakable.  Perhaps a more relevant question is why the composers made such a long song.  Certainly they had a lot of strong feelings.  And they learned from and would like to pay attribute to “We are the world” and to show varieties as well.  So the first two parts are crooning and the last rock and roll.  

Let the world be filled with love” was also a milestone in mainland China’s pop music history.  At the time, if the US was a senior in college, Taiwan a freshman, the mainland perhaps only in the third grade, still learning how to write, record, perform, and distribute pop music.  Thanks to “Let the world be filled with love” and others, within the next 10 years or an even shorter time, the mainland market exploded and matured quickly.  Nonetheless, “Let the world be filled with love” remains the pinnacle of pop music production in China, surpassed by none, although one may be comparing “A farewell to arms” with short stories again.   

Still, an age of innocence and hope.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Rule of law



The rule of law is a major pillar of today’s world.  It demands that the populace understand what to expect and do under myriad situations and that the authorities regulate and reinforce certain behaviors.  Rule of law, like many others, sounds excellent in concept but is forever elusive in practice, even in a mature society as the US.    

The most recent case is the standoff between Cliven Bundy, a Nevada rancher, and the federal Bureau of Land Management.  The dispute went back to 1993 when the Bundy family refused to pay BLM gazing fees for their cows.  The Bundys have their reasoning and arguments, but a long story short, they have lost every court battle there is and now owe over one million dollars.  Then in early April 2014 BLM came in to roundup the rancher’s ~ 1000 cattle as compensations.  The Bundys resisted and were supported by hundreds of militia that came to their ranch and politicians in and out of the state, forcing BLM to drop its plan, at least for the time being.  

On the surface, what the Bundys have done is clearly illegal and serves the public no good.  Otherwise, why should Martha Stewart and Wesley Snipes go to jail?  The sound bites of militia and politicians all danced around how heavy-handed BLM was but skirted the core issue that the Bundys have had their days in courts but always lost for the past 20 years.  It is curious that BLM chose to round up 1000 cows instead to arrest Cliven Bundy only.  Maybe BLM has no such authority, but it surely was much more work to get those many cows, and the federal government can indeed conjure up many excuses and ways to get anybody if it chooses to, considering what has transpired now.    

Similar occurrences happen in China (and other countries as well) a lot.  A common example is the disputes between street vendors and street or city inspectors (see “Problems with Chinese courts and laws”).  Street vendors need licenses and conduct business at designated areas, which is reinforced by the inspectors.  When the vendors set up shops at the wrong places and the inspectors come along, most vendors will flee.  Some vendors do get caught or refuse to leave, then they will have to pay a fine, which most of them do.  But once in a while, there are scuffles between the vendor(s) and inspectors which often become major local news, and the sympathy usually goes to the vendor(s) if the media are to be believed.

So the Nevada standoff is nothing new per se, just that the distinction between mature vs immature societies is only relative.  

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Lessons from the attack of the Kunming Train Station

There was an attack on the Kunming Train Station in Yunnan, China on March 1, 2014.  According to http://news.sina.com.cn/c/2014-03-02/033829599206.shtml, over 10 people wielding knives randomly attacked people near and inside the Station, killing at least 28 and wounding over 100.  At this point the identities of the attackers are unknown, but there is little doubt that this is a classic terrorist attack in most people's definition (more on this later).

A number of lessons can be learned from this attack and the subsequent, nothing new but still worth mentioning here.  The first is that Chinese police has always been slow to respond and largely powerless to stop the initial wave of attack because they are poorly equipped and not well prepared.  In prior incidents either the police themselves or the civilians greatly suffered.  In the US, cops all carry weapons, often at least two guns, and especially after 911, have a mechanism to quickly mobilize.  In China the logistics is simply absent.  The first line of defense, police at the scene, as most Chinese cops, usually don't carry firearms or are only lightly armed.  And I am not sure if there even is a real mechanism responding to such incidents and how fast help can arrive at any moment.  It is high time the government properly arms the police and has a genuine plan for emergencies.  One can imagine that if the police at the Station had had enough guns and bullets, the terrorists would not have had inflicted such a heavy casualty.

The second is that knives have been the most commonly used weapons in recent terrorist attacks in China.  This, luckily, has reduced the number of dead people.  In the US, a single gunman could kill over 10 people easily.  But this will likely change soon, and it will exacerbate the problem posed in lesson #1 quickly.  The government needs to have a wholesale plan for such an inevitability.  Again, learn from the US, GB, and Russia.  Clearly, one can argue that such attacks can not be prevented completely anywhere, but at least loss must be minimized. 


The third is that Chinese people should be more prepared as well.  Since the 1980s Chinese people have got used to a largely uneventful society, which is good.  But the world is changing, as many other countries have had this problem for many years.  Next time, it would be a bomb, guns, and chemicals, it would be in a movie theater, or somewhere that Chinese are not used to but happened elsewhere before.  Mentality has to change, can't rely on the government all the time, need to do something yourself.  Like paying attention to your surroundings.

The fourth is one of my favorite subjects that yet again confirms my negative view of the mainstream media in the West.  News of the attack was everywhere in the Chinese official and social media, and some details emerged quite early on, like a group of criminals.  For AP, CNN, etc, the first reporting was hours late, understandable because one needs verifiable, perhaps more information, in a world far away, so it is OK that the first report contained no mentioning of terrorism.  But it didn't leave out the motive-instead it included a sentence at the end that suggested that it might be a grudge against society. 

It smells like a preemptive whitewash more than anything else.  For I am sure the 9-11 attackers also had a grudge against society.  On the other hand, if there is one guy doing this, maybe he is crazy, but everybody knew by then there were a group of attackers.  And the US has labelled many a single terrorist.  I am not aware of any case a group of people attacking bystanders in this manner in the West not being labeled terrorism, although for China it is different fro western reporters.  This nicely fits their talking points that minorities are oppressed in China, so whatever happens must be the government's fault, because it can't be terrorism when they are just mad.  We don't know who did this yet, but for prior attacks the Chinese government claimed terrorist (and the public agreed), the Western media and government always voiced doubt and hardly if ever agreed.  I wonder if this time will be any different.  If it is, will it change how they view the other attacks, as the Chinese government always cries wolf?  Is this time the lone wolf, or wolves all along?

I wouldn't bet on it, especially on the West changing their long-standing narrative, because, frankly, it is a common knowledge that they are the backers of the generals, if not the foot solders, of the attacks, which is once again reflected in the initial reporting.  But it doesn't matter.  Let the Western media and their perrot, the "public intellectuals" in China whine for evidence.  The vital thing is the Chinese government and public need to be better prepared for such emergencies. The Chinese people have largely supported the government's positions; if anything, they think the government and police are too weak.  The responses should be faster and more decisive; learn from the US, but only apply it in China.