a curious Yankee in Europe's court

blog about living in Europe, and Italy

Books I read: “Somebody Else’s Century…” (Patrick Smith)

Posted on the February 20th, 2012

“Somebody Else’s Century/East and West in a Post-Western World” by Patrick Smith (2010)


Why did I choose this book?

I wanted to learn more about Asia, something beyond the usual news articles and television programs that only focus on politics and financial news. From such narrow reporting, it isn’t possible to have more than a vague idea about the countries and people and cultures in Asia.

I didn’t even know precisely which countries are East and why. I wanted to learn more about the distinctions between the Japanese, Chinese and Korean people.

And a blurb on the back cover of the book also sparked interest:

This thoughtful and highly original meditation on the future of Asian societies should be required reading for anyone interested in where our planet is heading. (Chalmers Johnson)

Finally, it was the credibility of the author. Patrick Smith is a journalist who has been a foreign correspondent in Asia since 1981.

Did I learn what I hoped to learn?

Yes, and much much more. The depth and detail of reporting in this book transformed my views of Asia. An unexpected reaction was the anger I felt that our traditional news media does not offer such comprehensive reporting in its daily coverage.  Smith brilliantly demonstrates what a journalist can do if given the chance.

Choosing a perspective from the inside out, Smith writes about the complex reasons a defeated and humiliated Japan (post-World War II) embraced and imitated the priorities and culture of those who conquered it. He traces the historical relationship between China and Japan. He discusses the attitudes of the people in each toward each other. And Smith analyzes a crucial aspect of India and its people that makes the country and culture markedly different from China and Japan.

Most interestingly, he reviews the arbitrary line that divides East from West, questioning exactly what it is and whether it has any validity. Excerpt:

Herodotus concluded that the business of East and West was ‘imaginary.’ The line he referred to was drawn by humans. For a long time we have simply lost track of this. We have erred in thinking the divide is eternal — ever there, ever to be there, somehow (and somewhere) etched into the earth. Now we enter a time when we can see from another perspective and see the truth of things and of ourselves.

Favorite quote from the book:

“The past is made of every moment up to the one we live in, the moment we know as ‘now.’ Each speck of our past is part of what makes us who we are… We honor tradition only when we add to it. The rest is mere convention, unalive.”

Who wrote this book?

Patrick Smith is an American journalist who has written for major publications including the International Herald Tribune, The New Yorker, The Nation, Business Week, and The Economist.  He is also the author of the award-winning book, “The Nippon Challenge and Japan: A Reinterpretation.”


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How do you run a Chinese Bank?

Posted on the August 21st, 2011

It’s not at all hard to find China in the news headlines, given that increasing numbers of people — experts and ordinary citizens — reportedly see it fast arriving as the world’s new superpower.

Highly detailed views from particularly informed experts, however, are not so plentiful. A lengthy video discussion recently between Carl Walter of JP Morgan and Victor Shih of Northwestern University, hosted by G+, is “spectacular” (per MacroBusiness.com) and informative.

For me, one of the most thought provoking observations comes in the first video (starts at 13:44). Walter describes the reaction of the Chinese government to the 2008 financial crisis and the fall of Lehman Brothers. At that point, the highly alarmed Chinese, according to Walter, lost all faith in the Western financial model.

Summing this up, Walter says:

The Chinese want to have a clear model that they can try out and see if it works and then expand on, and now that [Western model] financial system is gone…

Watch the full discussion here, posted on MacroBusiness. Note — the comments section is also interesting.



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Are the rules of the game changing in China? Ian Johnson says…

Posted on the October 25th, 2010

Since my post about Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao’s recent exclusive CNN interview (and visit to Europe) earlier this month, I’ve been searching online for informed commentary that offers some perspective and context for the Premier’s statements. A post written by Ian Johnson last week for The New York Review of Books‘ blog is a good start for that, I think (“Rumblings of Reform in Beijing?” Oct 20, 2010).

Johnson comprehensively sums up the recent six weeks of speculation and news about what may or may not be happening within China’s leadership in regard to possible political reform.

In particular, regarding some statements by Wen in his CNN interview that seemed to offer hope for more freedom of speech for the Chinese citizenry, Johnson writes:

Then what about Premier Wen’s calls for voting and free speech? There’s a famous picture of him in Tiananmen Square in May 1989, shortly before the army moved in. He’s standing next to former party secretary Zhao Ziyang—the reformer who addressed the student protestors sympathetically on the eve of the crackdown—whom Wen served loyally. Many say that the premier was harkening back to those heady days when he was firmly in the reformist camp, and that with just two years left on his term he wants to go down in history as a reformist.

But the photo also reminds us how weak Premier Wen really is…

Read the full post here.

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What China has to say for itself: Premier Wen Jiabao

Posted on the October 8th, 2010

At the end of a short interview early this week on a CNN news show, the anchor Charles Hodson asked Jamil Anderlini, the Beijing correspondent for the Financial Times, what was the point, the purpose of this week’s “enormous offensive, this diplomatic offensive by the Chinese in Europe?”

Hodson was referring to the official visit of Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao to Europe this week. The premier won headlines with his favorable remarks about the Eurozone. They included a pledge to support the Euro, and an announcement during a visit to Greece that China will buy government bonds to try and aid the struggling country (see here and here).

Anderlini, after offering his analysis of the reasons for China’s proposed largesse to Europe, summed up with this:

“Well I think what you’re seeing is, China is obviously now the world’s second largest economy, it’s the biggest energy user, it’s the biggest emitter of carbon and greenhouse gases in the world, and it really is – China is really rising very rapidly on the world stage, both economically, militarily, politically.

And I think, you know there’s a re-evaluation going on of the traditional foreign policy in China which is — it was laid out a couple of decades ago by former paramount leader Deng Xiaoping — and that policy was that China should hide its brilliance, hide its light, and bide its time. But I think China has really reached the point where it’s re-evaluating that policy and that strategy.”

But Europe wasn’t the only target audience of what amounted to a media blitz this week of the European, Anglo-American world by the Chinese premier. Wen Jiabao also sat for an hour-long CNN interview for U.S. television with superstar journalist Fareed Zakaria.

Pointing out that the Chinese premier rarely gives interviews to Western journalists, Zakaria introduced the session by also listing some of China’s recent power moves in international relations.

Here are some excerpts from the interview:

In his opening questions, Zakaria asked Wen Jiabao about the worldwide financial crisis, about China itself, and whether Chinese leadership has lost faith in the U.S.  The premier responded with a diplomatically amiable comment about President Obama and then spoke about his own country:

In the face of the financial crisis, any person who has a sense of responsibility towards the country and towards the entire human race, should learn lessons from the financial crisis. As far as I am concerned, the biggest lesson that I have drawn from the financial crisis is that in managing the affairs of a country, it is important to pay close attention to addressing the structural problems in the economy.

China has achieved enormous progress in its development, winning acclaim around the world. Yet I was one of the first ones to argue that our economic development still lacks balance, coordination and sustainability. This financial crisis has reinforced my view on this point. On the one hand we must tackle the financial crisis, on the other we must continue to address our own problems. And we must do these two tasks well at the same time and this is a very difficult one…

Later Zakaria asked Wen Jiabao about the much reported, and widely criticized censorship of the Internet by Chinese officials. Somewhat surprisingly, the premier praised the freedom of expression and freedom to criticize the government allowed on the Internet in China.  Zakaria challenged this appraisal, citing his own experience of the many restrictions he has encountered when he himself has visited China.

Wen Jiabao didn’t refute Zakaria’s assessment but responded:

“I believe I and all the Chinese people have such a conviction that China will make continuous progress and the people’s wishes for and needs for democracy and freedom are irresistible. I hope that you will be able to gradually see the continuous progress of China.”

In the last segment of the interview Zakaria mentioned a series of speeches that Wen has given in the last few months. He mentioned one in particular in which the premier said that along with economic reform, China must keep doing political reform. Zakaria then said that a lot of people he knows in China have told him that there has been a lot of economic reform but not much political reform: “What do you say to people who listen to your speeches and they say we love everything Wen Jiabao says but we don’t see the actions of political reform?”

After a preliminary comment on the importance of the ruling governing party being faithful to the constitution and its laws, Wen Jiabao ended with this:

I have summed up my political ideals into the following four sentences. To let everyone lead a happy life with dignity, to let everyone feel safe and secure, to let the society be one with equity and justice, and to let everyone have confidence in the future. In spite of the various discussions and views within society, and in spite of some resistance, I will act in accordance with these ideals unswervingly and advance within the realm of my capabilities political restructuring.

“I would like to tell you the following two sentences to reinforce my case on this or my view on this point. That is, I will not fall in spite of the strong wind and harsh rain, and I will not yield til the last day of my life.

To see the full interview, go here.

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America’s dismal future? China’s rise?

Posted on the September 16th, 2010

One of the most interesting and puzzling findings, for me, of the New Transaltantic Trends survey just released are the widely divergent transatlantic views of Americans and Europeans on the rise of Asia:

EU and U.S. respondents were divided about the role Asia would play in global affairs. Seven-in-ten respondents (71%) in America found it very likely that China will exert strong leadership in the future, while only a third of Europeans (34%) thought the same scenario is very likely.

That’s a gigantic perception gap between the two groups. Why? Haven’t a clue.

Still puzzling over this divide, I came across a video of a panel discussion yesterday at the World Economic Forum meeting now underway in Tianjin, China. Hosted by Steve Clemons, the panel discussion was titled “America in the Asian Century.”  The panel members included public figure heavyweights:

Cui Liru, President, Chinese Institutes of Contemporary International Relations; Thomas L. Friedman, Columnist, The New York Times; Taro Kono, Acting Secretary-General, Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), Japan; Moon Chung-In, Professor of Political Science, Yonsei University, Korea; Charles E. Morrison, President, East-West Centre, USA; and Kurt Tong, Senior Official to Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation, US Department of State.

Highly recommended watching!  Unless you’re already an expert on the subject, the discussion is illuminating and thought-provoking.

Just a couple of quotes (many to choose from), this first one from Professor Moon Chung-In, of Korea:

We are trapped in a kind of cognitive dissonance between old inertia and new reality. We all know American power is declining, okay, yet we try and recognize America as a continuing power, shaping everything in this part of the world…

And from host Steve Clemons:

One of the challenges for the United States is that to much of the rest of the world, it looks like the General Motors of nations. It’s big, it has a ton of assets, you always hear America has all these bases, this power, this capacity.

But when it comes to where it’s anticipated to be 20 years from now, it looks like GM. China has looked like the Google of countries. In other words, power is based on future expectation, much like the stock market…

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Whose century will it be?

Posted on the February 2nd, 2010

Two countries that have the demographic and economic potential to own this century, so to speak, are China and India, according to some analysts. Among other reasons, both nations already have massive populations that continue to grow at turbo speed.

In a book review last month, however, Brussels-based scholar Jonathan Holslag questions the optimism of one of the China-India enthusiasts. The particular book he writes about is “Gravity Shift: How Asia’s New Economic Powerhouses Will Shape the Twenty-First Century” by Wendy Dobson. Professor Dobson is Co-director of the Institute for International Business at the University of Toronto.

Offering an overview of the book, Holslag begins with praise:

Dobson summarizes the challenges facing both countries as each continues its economic transition, enriching her discussion by clarifying the role of institutions. She gives a very transparent overview of the differences between the two nations’ economies in terms of governance. China excels in stability, regulatory capacity and effectiveness, while India leads in accountability and the rule of law. Her analysis is embedded in a rich social and historical context that focuses on the imperial bureaucracy in China, the caste system in India and the colonial legacies in both countries.

Holslag soon, however, spots some gray clouds he insists are unobserved in Dobson’s forecast:

The question is, of course, whether and how China and India will pull themselves out of their vast socioeconomic and political problems. Dobson rightly suggests that more reforms are necessary, but how realistic is it to expect they will occur?

And he goes to elaborate in detail his differing perspective. Holslag’s review is titled “The Myth of Chindia” (Literary Review of Canada, Jan 1, 2010).

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China’s SINA now has news website in English

Posted on the May 20th, 2008

The major Internet portal in China, SINA, announced yesterday that its English news site is now online. The recent massive earthquake in the country determined the timing, according to the press release:

It was truly a massive tragedy. We have chosen to launch our English news site now as we would like to provide up-to-minute coverage of the earthquake for overseas people who are concerned about the tragedy and easy access for those who wish to show their love and care or make their contributions.” said Charles Chao, President and CEO of SINA. “Over the longer term, we intend to make this site a window for international communities to have an easy access to China related information and to have better understanding about modern China.

Content on the SINA site is similar in format to that of Western online newspapers, including video and photos. Read the Guardian story here (“Chinese news site launches in English” by Jemima Kiss, May 19, 2008).

I found the link to this article at The Editors Weblog.org.

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Learning English: where the twain meet

Posted on the February 7th, 2008

East is meeting West, contrary to the old saying, in the world of language. China is pushing hard to get its people to learn to speak English. It’s all part of the country’s big push to get ready for the 2008 Olympic Games coming to Beijing this year in August.

In this Reuters video (“English fever hits China” Jan 16, 2008), reporter Kitty Bu talks to one 72-year-old student, and also visits a classroom and interviews a teacher.

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