Monday, August 22, 2005

The Rising Of The Rising

The Rising Of The Rising

By Rajiv Rawat

21 August, 2005

A strange North American silence seems to have descended over the Bollywood film, The Rising: Ballad of Mangal Pandey, a historical epic depicting the Indian sepoy uprising against their British masters in 1857. The year's most anticipated Indian film, with an unprecedented number of UK and North American screenings in mainstream movie theatres seems to have been completely bypassed by North American film critics.

In the week following its August 12 opening, none of the major newspapers nor the alternative weeklies in the US and Canada had reviewed the film. The fact that the film could only be screened in specialty theatres in most urban areas didn't help, but other films in this category seemed to have been diligently reviewed. Indeed, one of the few articles to appear was an AP story that related the experiences of white tourists enlisted to play extras in the film! However, the movie itself was not reviewed. Only Variety entertainment magazine seems to have picked up the movie, giving it a glowing thumbs up.

While this is somewhat indicative of how the Northern American media is gravely disconnected from the cultural milieu of most ethnic minorities, it is also disturbing because the Rising has a powerful anti-imperialism message resonant of the current American hubris in Iraq and the brutality and bloodshed it has entailed. The movie's depictions of what the British call the mutiny and what Indians call their first war of independence, also retains strong social commentary that shapes the awakening of the main character and leads him from servitude to outright rebellion against his former masters. The nature of the racist and capitalist oppression of Company Raj (India was then ruled by the East India Company) is also explored evocatively, as are the ambiguities of culture and religion in the fight for freedom.

In the UK, some British historians have pilloried the film for depicting the British East India Company in such a bad light. Even the Conservative Party and right-leaning newspapers have stepped into the fray, demanding an explanation over why the UK Film Council helped fund the film. Beyond the imperial apologia, their indignation may stem from the fact the victors are no longer solely writing the history books, and that subaltern views are finally getting the chance to be so vividly expressed in the mainstream. The indignation may also stem from the fact that the film offers a powerful rebuke to recent attempts by hawkish neo-conservative scholars and politicians to rehabilitate imperialism, a trend that has reached the highest levels with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singhs recent objectionable statements at Oxford extolling its virtues. The hue and cry over historical inaccuracies was also contested by Toby Stephens, the English lead in the film who expressed a "shameful ignorance" about the East India Company's record in India, a record that is at best glossed over, and at worst, whitewashed in British history.

Indeed the issue of historical licence has been trumped up to discredit a profound examination of the nature of corporate colonial rule. On one hand, the residents of Pandey's hometown of Ballia have objected to the depiction of Pandey's love for a dancing girl in a knee-jerk socially conservative fashion. They are also upset that the hometown wasn't mentioned in the film, although other towns have laid claim to being the birthplace of Mangal Pandey as well. Unfortunately, this minor offence misses the point illustrated by the relationship where the prostitution of the body is compared to the prostitution of the soul as in the case of the sepoys. For historians, the alleged historical distortions are also somewhat of a red herring. One has only to survey the great majority of historical epics to realize that cinema has long been tinkering with facts to suit the exigencies of producing compelling plots. With the short time allotted to a film, it only makes sense to weave important events together or even create composite characters and plot devices to address the larger points that the director wishes to make about his or her primary themes. Moreover in the case of Mangal Pandey, it is made clear from the outset that the film is a ballad and not the definitive story, in keeping with the Indian oral tradition.

What may further divide the critics and fuel a media campaign against the film is its uncompromising political message. The themes of Hindu-Muslim unity as well as strong social commentary on untouchability and prostitution will probably grate on chauvinists' nerves. Aamir Khan who plays Mangal Pandey and is also one of the most respected and popular actors working in India, has made the film's anti-imperialist message abundantly clear. In recent interviews, he drew a direct link between the behaviour of the East India Company and the United States which is acting like a colonizer in Iraq, Afghanistan, and before in Vietnam (interesting aside, the East India Company's red and white striped ensign is the direct inspiration for the stars and stripes). The film's economic critique is also strong, with a notable opium subplot proving very useful in illustrating the company's corrupt practices in the name of the "Free Market." The associated firing on villagers who violated the Company's monopoly over opium production was reminiscent of infamous massacres like Bloody Sunday in Ireland, Fallujah, or even Sharpeville in South Africa that touched off waves of rebellion. Mangal Pandey's Scottish officer friend also explains how the Company can be described as Ravan, Indian mythology's most notorious villain, except that instead of ten heads, the Company has a thousand all stuck together by greed. This is capped off by a song (and dance) about commodification, entitled "Takey, Takey" where everything including human beings and love itself could be bought and sold.

Fortunately, the film itself is technically and aesthetically brilliant, a point that can hardly be disputed by even the most hardened critics bent on savaging the film. Moreover, some of the jarring aspects stem from the layering of a historical epic on a Bollywood frame that is not usually given to contemplating serious political matters. However, even this risky blending of genres was attempted to ensure the film reached a wider audience in both the Subcontinent as well as internationally. At the very least, the film succeeds on the back of its outstanding leads, Aamir Khan and Toby Stephens. While on these grounds alone it's a great movie, important messages about oppression and freedom, collaboration and resistance are what make it an instant classic, and thus a dangerous film to the powers that be.


Wednesday, August 17, 2005

China Daily: Gay college course start of nation's lesson

Opinion piece in China Daily - Communist China is more progressive than Singapore:

Gay college course start of nation's lesson
China Daily  Updated: 2005-08-17 05:54

The popularity of a course on homosexuality study at Shanghai-based Fudan University is a positive sign that Chinese society is becoming more tolerant.

The class, which started in 2003 as a graduate programme, will be offered to undergraduates for the first time next term. Curious students have already signed up to fill the 100 seats on the course, leaving many late comers disappointed.

"From your class, I have learned tolerance, forgiveness and how to face up to life," one student wrote to Professor Gao Yanning, who masterminded the programme at Fudan. Past classes have drawn a total of 1,745 students, including some gay and lesbian people from outside campus.

There is a lack of tolerance in China regarding the homosexual community. Due to serious social discrimination, the large group of gay and lesbian citizens of China still live largely underground, not daring to reveal their true sexual orientation.

Many Chinese still consider homosexuals as equivalent to HIV/AIDS patients, although this is clearly an illogical position. Homosexuals are often looked down on at home, in their work units and in society as a whole as being immoral or even disgusting.

But China's Criminal Law revised in 1997 decriminalized sodomy. In 2001 homosexuality was also struck off China's long list of mental disorders.

In the past few years, the gay and lesbian community has launched a range of websites, creating their own land of freedom in cyberspace. Gay and lesbian bars have also popped up in big cities.

Beijing and Shanghai have set up hotlines to provide education and counselling. Several books published on the topic of homosexuality in China have called on the general public to show more tolerance and understanding.

Despite some progress, homo-sexuality is still widely discriminated against in employment, family and social life. Most gays and lesbians in China still live in fear, often in denial, waiting for wider social acceptance.

A survey of young and well-educated homosexuals shows 30-35 per cent have considered suicide, and 9-13 per cent have attempted to kill themselves.

Sixty-seven per cent felt very lonely while 63 per cent were deeply depressed. More than half of them said they lived in great pain due to a lack of understanding in society.

For gay people living in the poor, conservative countryside, where there is not even Internet access, life is even more desperate.

According to sociologists, heavy social pressure has forced about 80-90 per cent of the estimated 40 million homosexual Chinese into marriage, causing great personal suffering as well as ruining the lives of their spouses.

Li Yinhe, a sexologist at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, is a leading advocate of legalizing same sex marriages in China. These unions are legal in some countries and a few states in America.

China has undergone a great social and economic transformation over the past two decades, but much more needs to be done so that gays and lesbians can lead normal lives to be accepted as family members, friends and colleagues.

The government and legislature should provide more legal protection so that homosexuals are not discriminated against in the workplace or other social settings. The media and schools should be more open and active in educating the general public about understanding the gay community.

The class at Fudan University should be just the beginning of a much larger public discussion and educational campaign.

Our society needs to be taught to respect the diversity of the modern world. In the 21st century the Chinese mentality should include tolerance and acceptance.

Thursday, August 11, 2005

Fwd: [The Optical] Rich-Poor divide in Singapore increases

From: The Optical <>
Date: Thu, 11 Aug 2005 22:20:46 +0800 (CST)
Subject: [The Optical] Rich-Poor divide in Singapore increases

To unsubscribe, please send an e-mail to "" from the same e-mail account you are subscribed to. Thank you.

Yahoo! Groups My Groups | TheOptical Main Page


Singapore, 10 August (AKI) - As Singapore celebrated
its fortieth year of independence, the divide between
the rich and poor in the city-state is widening. Taxi
drivers, sales staff and factory workers do long
shifts at minimum wage, while the number of
millionaires - some 48,500 - rose at the world's
fastest rate in 2004, according to consultancy firm
Cap Gemini Merrill Lynch. “Twenty percent of the
population earns less, in real terms, than ten years
ago and a third of the working population does not
earn enough to pay income tax," Sinapan Samydoray of
Singapore's Think Centre told Adnkronos International

At forty, Singapore is South East Asia's pearl, a real
political and business miracle which made the
city-state far richer than its neighbouring countries.

But according to most, living in Singapore requires a
minimum monthly wage of 1,500 Singapore dollars,
around 734 euros. AKI spoke to three average
Singaporeans who live in the city who say that they
don't earn that much.

“I work twelve hours a day, seven days a week. I never
go to the movies, never take holidays and yet I don't
earn enough to support my family”, said Lion, a
52-year-old taxi driver.

Another Singaporean Fil, a 20-year-old saleswoman who
works at the Suntec commercial centre, said that her
wage doesn't allow her to live by herself. “I work
extra hours but the extra 990 Singapore dollars (440
euro) that I earn are not enough to make me
independent. I still live with my parents and if I
want to move out, I would have to find another job,"
she said.

A security agent, Razman, 30, who works at the
supermarket chain Carrefour also works extra hours and
has a second job in a gym. “I work 14 to 16 hours a
day, 6 days a week. And then I work as a private gym
instructor 3 days a week”, he said, adding that he
does all these jobs to earn a total of 1,600 Singapore
dollars (783 euro).

According to Samydoray of Singapore's Think Centre,
these three cases represent the living conditions of
the majority of the city's inhabitants.

Samydoray explains that Singapore doesn't have minimum
wage and each employee has work out the conditions of
his or her own salary. The local population has been
left with virtually no negotiating power since cheap
labour is available from neighbouring states and the
government tries to limit the wages in order to
attract foreign investments.

The situation is completely different for the wealthy
portion of the population which rose at the fastest
pace in the world in 2004, according to a report by
the consultancy firm Cap Gemini Merrill Lynch.

Singapore's millionaires rose 22.4 percent to 48,500
people, the report said. In the US, the number
increased 10 percent to 2.5 million and in Hong Kong
they rose by 18.8 percent to 67,500. Asia had 2.3
million millionaires last year, up 8.2 percent, the
research showed.

Mukhopadhaya Pundarik, a professor at Singapore's
National University, said the rich-poor divide in the
city-state has increased during the economic crisis
which hit South East Asia in 1997. In that period,
said the professor, the average income of Singaporeans
fell by 2.7 percent, while the that of the poorest
families fell by a staggering 49 percent.

Despite the gap, Singapore remains an efficient state.
The former British colony, which gained independence
in 1965 from Malaysia, has become in just a few
decades a financial and technological centre as well
as one of the world's busiest ports.

“For the rich and for foreigners, Singapore is an
exceptional place. I have no doubt about it. I only
hope the majority of the local population could have
the chance to benefit from the city," said Samydoray.

THE OPTICAL (Singapore)

Disclaimer: The Optical provides Singapore political news as well as other related news which we believe will have an impact on Singapore either directly or indirectly. The Optical is not responsible for the content of broadcasted articles.

Send instant messages to your online friends


NYT: Why Baghdad Must Make Do With Takeout

NY Times
August 10, 2005

Why Baghdad Must Make Do With Takeout

BAGHDAD, Iraq, Aug. 6 - Things were looking up for Chen Xianzhong, proprietor of Baghdad's first authentic Chinese restaurant in the new Iraq, until a suicide car bomber blew up outside the place less than two weeks ago. The deafening blast shattered the windows and spewed body parts into the dining room. A foot landed on the pavement outside and a tire landed in the restaurant's second floor.

"There were small pieces of flesh all over, even on the roof," Mr. Chen said. Now, he does takeout only for the few loyal customers that continue to call.

Chinese restaurateurs turn up in the unlikeliest places, but Mr. Chen, 53, is a remarkable study in the tenacity that plants Golden Palaces and Hunan Gardens in cities and towns around the globe.

Born to a minor railway official in China's northeastern Jilin Province, Mr. Chen joined the army in the waning days of the Cultural Revolution and won a spot at Beijing University. Many people were studying English, but Mr. Chen, ever swimming against the tide, picked Arabic.

"There were only about 15 students studying the language there at the time," he said between sips from a screw-top tumbler of steeping green tea leaves. Though he says he converted to Islam during the Persian Gulf war in 1991, a statue of the Chinese god of fortune grins atop a bookshelf. Mr. Chen eventually got a job as a Baghdad-based representative for Norinco, China's military trading conglomerate, selling everything from milk powder to antitank missiles across the Middle East.

He spent the first gulf war in the United Arab Emirates, but returned to Iraq in 1999 to trade for China under the oil-for-food program. He quit his job in 2001 to start trading on his own, and was doing pretty well until the war came.

Mr. Chen left Iraq just three days before the American bombing started, with a $1.5 million shipment of his Chinese textiles nearing Iraq's southern port of Umm Qasr. The payment to Mr. Chen had not cleared by the time the invasion began. So, just two weeks after the fall of Baghdad, he was back to get the money. He eventually did.

Flush with cash, Mr. Chen smelled opportunity in the war's aftermath and opened a Chinese emporium selling cheap Chinese goods on Sadoun Street, Baghdad's main shopping thoroughfare. Next, he opened Dragon Bay Chinese Restaurant near the National Theater, outfitting it with high-backed emperor chairs and round Chinese banquet tables. Then he opened a smaller branch of the restaurant and a small hotel next to his trading emporium last year.

Some other adventurous Chinese citizens arrived by car from Jordan when travelers needed nerve, not visas, to get across the border. They set up a restaurant after his in what has become the high-security Green Zone. But Mr. Chen dismisses them as amateurs, saying that the place doubles as a massage parlor.

The few Chinese restaurants in Baghdad's hotels, meanwhile, were never very authentic and, now staffed by Iraqi cooks, offer only a semblance of Chinese food.

"I wanted to open the best Chinese restaurant ever in Iraq," Mr. Chen said, adding that he imported four containers of powders, sauces, roots, pickled vegetables and other Chinese culinary supplies - enough to keep his 400-seat restaurant serving kung pao chicken for three or four years.

As Baghdad tried to return to normal, his business thrived.

Then, the trouble began. A group of Chinese workers were kidnapped amid the wave of abductions and beheadings that swept Iraq in 2004. They were eventually released, but two of his four chefs went back to China. Selling liquor at the restaurants also became increasingly dangerous as Shiites and Sunnis both sought to impose Islamic rules.

This March, while Mr. Chen drove his green Mercedes to a vegetable market in town, a beat-up Volkswagen lurched to a stop in front of him, he said, blocking his way. Three men jumped out, waving guns, and tried to force him into the back seat.

"Take my car, take my money," Mr. Chen shouted. But the gunmen said they did not want his car; they wanted him. He fought back and was cracked on the head with the butt of a gun, sending blood pouring over his face. Fortunately, he was known in the neighborhood for shopping there. Several shopkeepers came out with guns and opened fire.

His would-be abductors jumped in the car and roared away, dragging him a dozen yards before letting go. He spent two days in the hospital before returning to China for a month of rest and medical tests. But by May, he was back. Now he never goes out without an armed guard. Just weeks after Mr. Chen was attacked, one of his Chinese employees was carjacked while delivering a payroll to some of his workers. Gunmen took the car and the $50,000 in it.

Finally, on July 30, the suicide bomber struck near the National Theater. The force of the bomb blew out the restaurant windows and brought down much of its ceiling. No one was inside at the time. Through the restaurant's gaping windows, Mr. Chen's emperor chairs with their silk Jacquard cushions now sit empty at the dining room tables.

That was enough. "I'm afraid of these crazy people," he said, running a hand over his unevenly dyed crew cut. He closed both restaurants and the hotel. He still has two chefs, who have retreated to a small kitchen atop the emporium where they work at a four-burner propane cooker.

But Mr. Chen has invested nearly $500,000 in his ventures and has earned back only about two-thirds of that. He wants to move to the Kurdish region of northern Iraq, where it is safer, but the roads north are too risky to move his goods there.

At night, he, his chefs and four other Chinese workers barricade themselves on the upper floors while Iraqi guards keep watch below.

There are guns in almost every room, he says. He pulls an AK-47 from beneath his desk and then takes a Colt .45 revolver out of a desk drawer. "There's no safety on it," he says, spinning open the Colt's chamber, "so at any time I can ..." He finishes the sentence by pulling the trigger: click, click.

He speaks with the conflicting emotions of man who professes not to care about money, but who cannot bring himself to walk away.

"I'd leave Iraq, but I can't just abandon all of this," he said, motioning to the inexpensive suits, teddy bears and teacups for sale. One of the chefs prepares lunch but the electricity dies midway during the meal. As the air-conditioner sighs into silence, Mr. Chen goes off to start the generator, but he returns sweat-soaked to announce that the generator's battery has been stolen.

"But I like this country," he insisted, as if to convince himself of why he is still here. "I saw my first U.S. dollar here."

Diplomacy of the status quo

La Monde:
Diplomacy of the status quo
China: middle kingdom, world centre

China has announced that the yuan will no longer be pegged to the dollar; greater currency flexibility will permit Beijing to use monetary policy to control its economy. And the entry of its enormous labour force into the global economy will change the world balance of trade. China wants to bypass the Japanese-United States alliance in Asia and at the United Nations, and, through asymmetrical diplomacy, become a different kind of world power.

By Martine Bulard

THE meaning of a sentence in Chinese is determined by the order of the words rather than the words themselves. China’s geopolitical strategy operates on the same principle. From Beijing to Shanghai, among government representatives and their prominent advisers, and among academics, there is no escaping the latest catchword: stability.

But to understand its true meaning, it must be seen in the context of a country that is perpetually on the move: where members of the government now travel abroad to an unpre­cedented extent; where the universities, more open than ever to the outside world, have a new role as government research centres, some of them funded by foreign donors. The Centre for International Studies occupies three ultramodern blocks in the prestigious University of Beida in Beijing, one sponsored by a wealthy Hong Kong businessman, one by an Italian company, and one by a Hong Kong firm. Three architects were employed but the result is a harmonious whole that fits perfectly with its historic setting (1). Opening up does not mean giving up. And stability is not the same as immobility.

The foreign ministry spokesman, Kong, in his office opposite the Feng Lian plaza with its flourishing luxury shops, inaccessible to most Chinese, explains: “China wants above all to promote a stable environment, conducive to development.”­Several hundred kilometres away, in the new premises of the Centre for American Studies in the famous University of Fudan in Shanghai, funded partly by the United States Agency for International ­Development, even the great nuclear expert, Professor Shen Dingli, who usually avoids ­clichés, cannot escape the obligatory reference to stability. ­Nothing frightens him more than the possibility of destabilisation in Korea, which has a common border with China, or in the Middle East, which supplies almost half of Beijing’s oil imports.

He explains what has been called the ­“diplomacy of the status quo”. For Beijing, ­order, even US order, even relatively unfavourable order, is preferable to chaos, which would thwart China’s plans for growth and global ambitions. Growth is the basis of the social contract with the people that keeps the regime in power through thick and thin. The global ambitions, in the words of Kong, are to restore China “to its proper place on the international stage”. Rather more vocal and active today than yesterday, but much less than it will be tomorrow, as its power increases.

Contrary to the general view, China’s ­diplomacy is not guided entirely by economic considerations, by the need to satisfy its hunger for raw materials or grain. Of course, ­international relations have a contribution to make in securing energy and food supplies. But the economy is part of a much wider ­vision China has of its role in the region and the world. The economy is part of the peaceful armoury essential to recognition on the ­international stage. “Look at the history of the past 500 years,” you are told. Without a strong economy, a nation has no say.

In the recent past, three events have had a significant impact on Chinese thought. The first was Tiananmen Square in 1989, still a ­taboo subject in the press (2). The trauma has nothing to do with any possible challenge to the regime: opposition parties are still banned, although intellectuals now have more freedom of movement. It is frequently emphasised that the trouble results from the price for Tiananmen that had to be paid to the outside world, starting with the western embargo imposed when the Soviet Union was no longer able to supply Beijing with hi-tech equipment, especially for military purposes.

Extreme mobility

The shock of Tiananmen signalled the ­beginning of the end of the honeymoon ­(miyue) with the US, which had lasted for ­almost 20 years, from the People’s Republic of China replacing Taiwan in the United Nations on 25 October 1971 and President Nixon’s visit to China in 1972, to the establishment of a strategic partnership instrumental in ­China’s development. This period was followed by ­disappointments, a number of incidents (including the 1999 bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade) and the strengthening of US links with China’s hated and despised competitor, Japan.

The second crucial event was the collapse of the Soviet Union. There were no regrets over the disappearance of this rival communist ­regime but many academics recall that the USSR wore itself out in a fruitless confrontation with the US and a financially ruinous arms race. According to an anonymous defence expert: “The US presses for competition and an uncontrolled increase in military spending but we should confine ourselves to modernising the weapons required to strengthen our defences.” This counsel of moderation is more show than substance, since military spending already accounts for 2.4% of China’s GDP, but it is worth deploying against the general staff, which would like it to be much higher.

Ultimately, according to Chinese diplomats, it was the division of the world into two camps that proved so costly. While they all deplore the unipolar order represented by the US, none of them wants to return to a bipolar world. There is no question of China becoming the leader of the developing countries, a role that would entail sacrifices.

“We share the wish of many developing countries for the democratisation of the ­international organisations,” says Kong, ­who­ stresses the importance of relations with Africa (3) and Latin America, “but there is no question of our constituting a pole. We must get away from our cold-war mindset and I ­prefer to speak of shared development. We must establish a habit of negotiation, which implies mutual concessions. The rapid ­expansion of trade will be accompanied by an increasing number of disputes. We must ­approach them in a spirit of negotiation” - not a spirit dictated by the system.

The government proposes to participate in the establishment of a multipolar world in which China would one day occupy an ­important place - in the centre, not at the head. It wants to shine, not dominate. This is not a purely formal distinction (4). At the height of its power, from the 11th to the 17th century, China had the largest fleet in the world, and many real and exceptional ­economic and technological advantages (5), but, unlike the Europeans, it never destroyed peoples or civilisations.

The third crucial event was the Chinese ­authorities’ response to the financial crisis that rocked Asia in 1997-98. China was the only country to keep exchange controls and ­resist the pressure from the International Monetary Fund (6), and the only one to retain some chance of growth when all the others, including Japan, were affected by the general slump. Better still, with the yuan tied to the dollar, it helped to establish a degree of stability in a region that was facing financial disaster. It even went so far as to grant low-interest loans or aid to several of the tiger economies that were in trouble.

The next generation that came to power in China built a strategy based on President Hu Jintao’s four nos: “No to hegemony, no to force, no to blocs, no to the arms race” (7). And yes to “confidence building, reducing difficulties, developing cooperation, and avoiding confrontation”. Conscious of its weaknesses set against the US giant and its competitors in Asia, Beijing engages in a highly mobile asymmetrical diplomacy, favouring bilateral relations but also participating actively in ­regional organisations, seeking to establish economic links with everyone and reduce past territor­ial tensions.

China and Russia signed an agreement at Vladivostok on 2 June 2005 to settle a dispute over 2% of their 4,300km common border that had poisoned relations since the end of the second world war. As President Vladimir ­Putin observed during the closing phase of the negotiations: “This is the first time in the history of Sino-Russian relations that the whole of their common border has been legally defined.”

On 11 April 2005 the Indian prime minister, Manmohan Singh, and his Chinese counterpart, Wen Jiabao, signed a protocol to settle a boundary dispute between the two countries that dates from 1962: Beijing claims a substantial part of the territory of the state of Arunachal Pradesh (90,000 sq km) in northeast India; and in the northwest New Delhi claims Aksai Chin, which is part of Kashmir (38,000 sq km). “The negotiations have only just started,” says Kong, “but this is the first time the question of boundaries has been ­addressed in an official document.” A historic step, which Beijing would like to consolidate by establishing a free-trade area embracing the demographic giants (see India and China ).

These new relations inevitably affect ­China’s links with its old allies, notably Pakistan. “Our position on its conflict with ­India tends to be neutral,” was the view of the deputy director of the Centre for Asia-Pacific ­Studies at the University of Beida in Beijing, Yang Baoyun. According to him, ­Islamabad “had benefited from the tension for many years” but attitudes were beginning to change - as witness the ­restoration of the bus service across Kashmir, which had been closed for 60 years (8).

Another sign of the peaceful emergence of China is its involvement in the crisis in ­October 2002 between the US and North ­Korea, which has declared that it is now ready to produce an atomic bomb. Beijing was the moving force behind the group of six (China, South Korea, North Korea, Japan, Russia and the US) formed to settle the dispute, and it is doing all it can to cool Pyongyang, stoked by the inflammatory statements of the Bush ­administration.

The prospect of a nuclear power in the ­Korean peninsula is not something Beijing relishes, and Yang confidently asserts that, if Pyongyang “were to start tests, we would cut off aid”. But opinion is divided on the question of pressure. Some think aid should be cut, at least to some extent, and they recall that once before, in 2004, a fortuitous technical incident caused an interruption in the flow of oil and forced President Kim Jong-il to resume negotiations (9). Others, like Professor Shen Dingli, take the opposite view, that “to stop aid would destroy all hope and drive [an already disastrous regime] to extremes”.

“Korea is a detestable burden,” says a former diplomat, “a regime in which people are dying of starvation to keep a dynasty in power. But China is stuck. It can neither advance nor retreat.” Sections of the army toy with the idea that nuclearisation is not all that serious and “Korea was and is China’s sentinel” in the event of conflict. Beijing has proved, if not to Washington at least to its neighbours, that it is capable of moving on from its old alliances and engaging in active diplomacy. Consider the moves to strengthen its links with the former ally of the US, South Korea, which fears destabilisation from the North. (Germany’s difficulties in absorbing the east have induced a certain caution about the neighbouring dictatorship (10).)

The real thorn in the Chinese tiger’s side is Japan. Yang is alarmed. “At no time in the past 30 years have relations between us been as bad as they are now,” he says. This was confirmed by everyone we spoke to. Many cited Japan’s refusal to face its own history, the incident of the book that played down Japanese crimes during the occupation of China, and prime minister Junichiro Koizumi’s visit to the Yasukuni shrine, where war criminals are buried.

China is not always clear and critical about its own history but a visit to the Shenyang ­museum in northeast China, main focus of the Japanese occupation, helps to explain its feelings about Japan. It contains an account of the murders, tortures and medical experiments carried out by the Japanese armies from 1931, together with recent explicit den­ials of these events made by prominent Japan­ese personalities (11). Here, as in Beijing, if you mention the anti-Japanese demon­strations in spring 2005, which were mostly orderly student demonstrations, with almost no worker participation, people reply: “What would you say in France if a German leader went to pay his ­respects at the tomb of some war criminal?”

Washington’s deputy sheriff

Besides the territorial problems over the ­islands known to the Japanese as the Senkaku and to the Chinese as the Diaoyu, which are of strategic importance to maritime control, the strengthening of the military links between Washington and Tokyo is also a source of concern. According to Professor Kazuya Sakamoto of the University of Osaka, “After 60 years spent keeping its head down, Japan appears destined to supplant Australia as Washington’s deputy sheriff in the Asia-Pacific region and become a pillar of America’s 21st-century security architecture” (12). The revision of the Japanese constitution (13), the decision to send troops to Iraq, and the transfer of US 1st Army Corps command (for operations in the Pacific and the Indian Ocean) from the west coast of the US to Camp Zama, south of Tokyo, lend some credibility to this contention (14). This is the crux of the special triangular relationship between China, the US and Japan.

Washington also supports Japan’s appli­cation for admission as a permanent member of the UN Security Council, immediately ­rejected by China, which is threatening to use its veto. As China’s ambassador to the UN, Wang Guangya, pointed out in a statement on 26 June 2005: “Japan will have to obtain a consensus in its region before it can think of sitting on the Security Council.” Beijing hopes to win its case with the support of South ­Korea, which has protested vehemently against Koizumi’s militarist sympathies (15), India, which would like to have a seat on the Security Council, and the African countries with which China has strong economic links.

The mention of Taiwan in the revised version of the bilateral security agreement ­between the US and Japan (16) was the last straw. Japan had avoided this issue since Sino-Japanese relations were normalised in 1972 and the US had its own formula for dealing with the question ­- “one country, two systems”. The integration of Taiwan into China “may take a hundred years or more”, ­according to one diplomat, but their separ­ation is impossible, unacceptable to the people, the army and the government.

The tough talk of recent months and the anti-secession law adopted in April 2005 are more defensive than aggressive, intended to draw a line that Taiwan and its allies must not cross. Although it is generally recognised that the political, diplomatic and economic costs of a military operation would be much too high, General Zhu Chenghu did not hesitate to state in July 2005: “If the Americans fire on Chinese territory, we shall be obliged to respond with nuclear weapons.” He was speaking in a personal capacity but the statement has not been denied. Beijing hopes that the 2008 Olympics will mark a turning point for the region and the world, and the government apparently fears that Taipei will declare independence on the eve of the games. Hence the threats, and the attempts to win hearts and minds.

The leaders of the Kuomintang, old enemies who had not set foot in China since 1949 (17), were received in May with great ceremony. Hu Jintao’s recent tour of Latin America, ostensibly to secure supplies of oil (Venezuela), raw materials, grain and soya (Cuba, Mexico, ­Brazil), was also designed to make it clear to those (notably in Central America) that still have close links with Taipei, that China offers a much bigger market. Meanwhile the Chinese leadership is relying on the 8,000 Taiwanese businessmen who have investments in China to exert pressure on the Taipei government. The Bush administration has finally managed to quell its ally’s passion for independence and Japan is showing more discretion.

But the rivalry persists. A former diplomat said: “There have been times, in the history of the region, when China was strong and ­Japan was weak, and times when the reverse was the case. Now China and ­Japan are going to be on an equal footing, and Japan is suddenly thrown off balance.” The old order is in turmoil but a new balance of power has not yet emerged. China is the main Asian supplier of the US, ahead of Japan; it ranks second, just behind Japan, in currency reserves - US treasury bonds - but its gross domestic product is two and a half times lower than Japan’s. It may warn Washington that it will stop acting as banker and will sell dollars, but then Tokyo would immediately come to the rescue.

This unequal balance of power does not preclude competition. While Japan hopes to emerge from its status as a political pygmy and consolidate its role as world leader in Asia (and permanent member of the Security Council, a development that would entail ­rearmament, to the dismay of all its neighbours, not just China), China wants to ­assert its role as Asian leader. Hence the rush to join multilateral organisations. Its accession to the World Trade Organisation in 2001 was crucial to its success. It won over the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), a cold-war outfit (18), advancing from observer status in 1991 to active participation (19), and getting agreement in November 2004 for the establishment of a free-trade area with Asean (20).

In Central Asia the establishment of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan) in June 2001 witnessed its commercial objectives, including fuel supplies. The initiative has taken a highly poli­tical turn since the war in Afghanistan. China shares Russia’s concern over the establishment of US bases in the region, and the concern of other republics about the movements of people deemed to be Islamic fundamentalists, notably Chinese Muslim Uighurs. The determination to crush opposition, as seen recently in Uzbekistan, leaves China relatively unmoved.

Beijing consensus

In the words of US expert David Shambaugh, “Bilaterally and multilaterally, ­Beijing’s diplomacy has been remarkably adept and nuanced, earning praise around the region. As a result, most nations in the region now see China as a good neighbour, a constructive partner, a careful listener, and a non-threatening regional power” (21). Is it possible to speak of the “Beijing consensus” (22) as a new model for development, as Joshua Cooper Ramo, member of the Council on Foreign Relations in the US and the Foreign Policy Centre in Britain, suggests? Can China become the leading country in an Asian economic and ­political union? It lacks the necessary economic means: two-thirds of its exports are generated by foreign companies established in Chinese territory, content to assemble products designed elsewhere.

China has cornered a few important niche markets, such as in optical fibres and mobile phones, and it is keen to extend its range by ­attracting foreign research centres and buying firms to acquire well-known trademarks and reap the benefits of technology transfer. But its growth, strong but still at the mercy of a vulnerable financial system, depends on the Asean countries and Japan for production and on western countries for exports (23). The smallest brush with the US could halt its dynamic progress and be politically explosive.

That does not prevent some experts from dreaming of a Sino-Japanese alliance, like the Franco-German alliance in Europe. Japanese, Chinese and Korean intellectuals were at a colloquium in Beijing (24) at the time of the anti-Japanese demonstrations in spring 2005. A school textbook, produced by historians of the three countries, was published in June. But while the US may be prepared to delegate more of its regional power as a military umbrella, it is unlikely to accept Japan as a strong regional power, much less China.

China wants rapid progress, not chaos. But, as a diplomat explains, “It can only shine if its culture is attractive, as our language once was. It is not enough to be merely a consumer. We must invent our own values, not copy those of the West.” Work is being done but there is no public arena for debate. The danger, as the diplomat says, is that by denying political freedom, “China may be denying itself”.