The Shanghai Cooperation Organization

It is not a a household name like NATO and the European Union, but the milquetoast-sounding Shanghai Cooperation Organization may become one of the most important geopolitical blocs in the world. Iran’s recent entry into the Eurasian alliance has given it a rare spotlight in mainstream Western news media.

Founded two decades ago, the SCO is the world’s largest regional organisation, covering three-fifths of the Eurasian continent, nearly half the human population, and one-fifth of global GDP. It originated from a mutual security agreement in the 1990s between Russia, China, and several Central Asian countries (all former Soviet republics), which committed to maintaining “military trust” along their border regions.

But since being announced by member governments in Shanghai in 2001, the SCO has become more integrated along political, economic, and even cultural lines, in addition to beefing up military cooperation beyond simply maintaining border security. The fact that the alliance is led by two of America’s chief rivals, and comprised mostly of authoritarian countries, certainly adds to its image as the principal antinode to the Western-led world order.

No doubt Iran’s membership will add to that perception, though it also joins the likes of India and Pakistan, which became members in 2017, both of which are close (if tenuous) partners with the United States and other Western countries.

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In fact, many analysts warn that the perception of the SCO as an anti-American or anti-Western bloc is vastly overstated. While it is certainly predicated on the idea of a “multipolar” world—coded language for an international order not dominated by the U.S. specifically—the group is far from presenting itself as anything akin to an “Eastern” NATO:

Rather than major political or economic gains, Iran’s main takeaway from this success in the short term may be limited to a boost in prestige and diplomacy.

The main issue with Iran’s approach towards the SCO is that it looks at it as a “concert of non-Western great powers” rather than a modern international organisation, and views it in an anti-Western or anti-US setting, says Hamidreza Azizi, visiting fellow at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP).

“This is despite the fact that countries such as Pakistan and India are US’s close partners, and even Russia and China have never been willing to openly challenge the US on the global scene,” Azizi told Al Jazeera.

“The combination of these two misunderstandings, and also Iran’s self-perception as a natural hegemon in West Asia, would make the whole thing appear to the Iranian leaders as Iran joining other anti-Western great powers to form a strong coalition that is going to challenge the US hegemony.”

Azizi added that SCO members are reluctant to entangle themselves in Iran’s rivalries, which may be why, on Friday, they also admitted Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Egypt as “dialogue partners” in a balancing effort.

From a diplomatic perspective, the approval is significant.

Indeed, for a country as diplomatically and economically isolated as Iran, joining such a large and imposing regional body, whatever its limitations, is at least good optics.

SCO MAP 10 July 2015 - Including two new permanent members Pakistan and India.png
A slightly dated map showing SCO partners (dark green), observers (light green) and “dialogue partners” (yellow). Source: Wikimedia Commons

The SCO is far from being a full-fledged alliance with formal and binding commitments among its members; there is nothing like NATO’s Article 5, which obligates all members to come to the defense of another member in an attack, nor does it have the level of economic integration of the European Union. As one analyst describes it, the SCO is more of a “venue” for discussion among “high-level dignitaries”—which is perfectly suited for mostly autocratic countries that jealously guard their sovereignty.

Still, many powerful regional blocs like the EU did start from humble beginnings, growing from diplomatic talk shops to fully institutionalized arrangements over the span of decades. A wide array of countries have expressed interest in joining the group or are currently engaged with it in some way, including NATO members like Turkey and strategic partners like Saudi Arabia. It remains to be seen if the SCO will ever become as tightly integrated as its Western counterparts, though this is unlikely given its explicit commitment to nonintervention in members’ affairs—which ironically makes it all the more appealing for certain countries to join.

China’s “Engineer Politicians”

In between bar exam prep, I just finished an interesting report on China’s leadership strategy that may explain the country’s massive and rapid economic and political rise (aside from sheer ruthlessness and all that).

Under Deng Xiaoping’s rule in the early 1980s, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) began to recruit new members from different social and occupational backgrounds into leadership positions, hoping to adapt to the changing environment by recruiting fresh talent and thereby obtaining new legitimacy. During the past decade, China has in fact been ruled by technocrats—who are mainly engineers-turned-politicians. The three “big bosses” in the so-called third generation leadership—Jiang Zemin, Li Peng, and Zhu Rongji—and three heavyweights in the fourth generation—President Hu Jintao, Premier Wen Jiabao, and Vice President Zeng Qinghong—are all engineers by training. Among the seven members of the 15th Politburo’s Standing Committee, China’s supreme decision-making body, six were engineers and one was an architect.

This pattern continued throughout the State Council and the ministerial and provincial governments. Even more remarkably, all nine men on the current Politburo’s Standing Committee are engineers by training. The elite transformation that has taken place in China in the post-Mao era is part of a wider and more fundamental political change—a move from revolution to reform in Chinese society. Turning away from the emphasis on class struggle and ideological indoctrination that characterized the previous decades, Deng and his technocratic protégés have stressed fast-paced economic and technological development at home and increased economic integration with the outside world.”

The short version: China has made a deliberate effort to appoint scientists and engineers at all levels of government—especially at the subnational level—and to diversify the experience and expertise of government officials beyond the lawyers (and to a lesser degree businesspeople) that dominate in many other countries.

To be clear, this is not itself indicative of the government’s integrity or efficiency. Corruption and human rights abuses remain rife in China, with the latter especially worsening in recent years under Xi Jinping (who studied chemical engineering). The report notes a growing rift within both the political leadership and broader society between those who went to elite schools and everyone else. (Interesting how universal that issue is.)

While the report does not draw this conclusion outright, I do think it is worth pondering to what degree China’s rise is owed to its relatively high reliance on scientists, engineers, and other non-lawyers. Do they provide a certain degree of pragmatism and problem-solving skills different from the typical legal and business oriented political class? Do they help inform policy through their diverse and unique perspectives (assuming the repressive state system does not dampen them)?

Whatever the case may be, I for one think the U.S. (among other places) can use diversity of profession, background, experience, and the like when it comes to law- and policy-making. It’s especially more imperative in a democracy where politicians should ostensibly be representing their constituents—but in most cases could not be further removed from who they claim to represent experientially, socioeconomically, and even by age. (More on that whole other topic in a future post.)

What are your thoughts?

The World’s Biggest Charity You’ve Never Heard of

Did you know that the world’s largest and most successful charity and nongovernmental organization (NGO) is from Bangladesh? It is the only organization from a poor country to rank among the top in the world.

Founded in 1972, BRAC—which once stood for the Bangladesh Rehabilitation Assistance Committee—was the brainchild of Sir Fazle Hasan Abed, a wealthy corporate accountant who was horrified by the state of his country, particularly following a devastating cyclone, which killed 300,000 people, and a bloody liberation war that killed between 300,000 and 3 million people, most of them civilians..

Whereas most would have despaired at this hopeless situation, Abed got to work. Having lived and worked in the U.K. for a time, he could have simply fled there, but instead sold his London flat and used the funds to create BRAC. The new organization immediately built housing for war refugees and storm survivors; within a year, it reportedly built up to 14,000 homes, as well several hundred fishing boats to support the refugees’ livelihoods.

BRAC soon expanded into every possible area of human development. It worked from the ground up, at the village level, to invest in agriculture, fisheries, worker cooperatives, rural crafts, adult literacy, health and family planning, vocational training for women, and community centers. To ensure efficiency, it established a Research and Evaluation Division (RED) to evaluate its programs and projects for their success, and to learn from any mistakes or shortcomings. Based on what was learned, BRAC took a more targeted approach to charity by creating “Village Organisations” (VO) to assist the most vulnerable people in Bangladesh, such as the landless, small farmers, artisans, and women. To finance its activities, it set up a commercial printing press and a handicraft retail chain, both of which employed poor people.

When diarrhea emerged as a leading cause of death for children (as it was historically and in poorer societies), BRAC initiated a field trial in two village, teaching rural mothers how to prepare a simple oral rehydration solution (ORS) that could save their children’s lives. Overtime, it scaled up its operations, which in the span of ten years taught 12 million households across over 75,000 villages across the country how to prepare ORS. The country has one of the highest rates of diarrhea treatment, with child mortality rates plummeting from 133 deaths out of 1,000 births in 1989 to 46 deaths per 1,000 in 2014—a decline of 65 percent.

The scientific and open-minded approach to charity is part of BRAC’s company culture and brand. As the Economist reported:

[BRAC] is also one of the world’s best charities. NGO Advisor, which tries to keep score, has put it top of the heap for the past four years. Its corporate culture is a little like an old-fashioned engineering firm. BEACH employees are problem-solvers rather than intellectuals, and they communicate well—the organisation constantly tweaks its programmes in response to data and criticisms from local staff. Some of its innovations have spread around the world.

Today, BRAC has about 100,000 full-time staff, mostly in Bangladesh but increasingly abroad, too. According to the World Bank, its program in Afghanistan significantly boosted incomes and women’s employment; its after-school clubs in Uganda appear to have reduced teen pregnancy rates and encouraged girls to pursue careers; and its innovate anti-poverty program, focused on giving assets and training to poor women, has been adopted with great success by charities in Ethiopia, Honduras, and India.

As of 2018, BRAC lent money to almost 8 million people and educated more than 1 million children across Bangladesh and ten other countries. Per its multifaceted approach to charity, it has founded or been involved in just about every possible venture: A university, a bank, over 8,700 primary schools, a dairy processor, a cold storage company to preserve farmers’ goods, and so much more.

BRAC is a reminder that even the poorest nations, no matter how “backward” or benighted they may seem, harbor incredible talent, creativity, and potential for progress.

Source: The Economist

How Average Indians Revived a Beachside Dump Into a Turtle Hatchery

In spring of 2018, something amazing happened in one of the most polluted beaches in the world: For the first time in decades, an extremely vulnerable turtle species has been spotted on the shores of Mumbai, India.

As The Guardian reported:

At least 80 Olive Ridley turtles have made their way into the Arabian Sea from nests on the southern end of Versova beach in the past week, protected from wild dogs and birds of prey by volunteers who slept overnight in the sand to watch over them.

Versova has undergone what the United Nations has called the “world’s largest beach cleanup project” over the past two years, transformed from a shin-deep dump yard for plastics and rubbish to a virtually pristine piece of coastline.

The man who leads the ongoing cleanup operation, the lawyer Afroz Shah, said he started anticipating the turtle hatchings two months ago when farmers on the southern end of the two-mile (3km) beach reported seeing turtles in the sand.

“The moment we got that news I knew something big was going to happen,” he told the Guardian. Last Thursday, some of his volunteers called to say they had spotted dozens of baby Olive Ridley turtles emerging from their nests.

He called the forest department and then went down to the beach with about 25 others, guarding the area while the tiny creatures hobbled across the sand, “making sure not one hatchling suffered a death”, he said.

In just two years, average Indians were able to reverse ecological devastation and watch a dying species begin to rejuvenate. Imagine volunteering day and night to make sure these little creatures had a fighting chance.

For more than two years, Shah has been leading volunteers in manually picking up rubbish from Versova beach and teaching sustainable waste practices to villagers and people living in slums along the coastline and the creeks leading into it.

About 55,000 people live along the beach and the waterways that feed it in the crowded megacity. Shah said he taught them by example, offering to clean communal toilets and pick up rubbish himself before he ever sought their help.

“For the first six to eight weeks, nobody joined,” he said. “Then two men approached me and said, very politely, ‘Please sir, can we wear your gloves?’ Both of them just came and joined me. That’s when I knew it was going to be a success.”

Meanwhile, on the other side of the country, in the eastern state of Odisha, a record-breaking 428,083 Olive Ridley turtles had nested a month before. This is hardly an isolated incident.

Think about these little-known success stories whenever we hear rhetoric about the developing world not pulling its weight in the fight against climate change or ecological devastation.

And let’s keep these efforts in mind when we begin to lose hope that we are losing this fight. In the grand scheme of things, cleaning up one polluted beach for one single species doesn’t seem like a lot, but it reveals our amazing potential to fix things if we have actually invested the time and will power.

Source: The Guardian

China’s CRISPR Babies

According to Chinese medical documents posted online this month (here and here), a team at the Southern University of Science and Technology, in Shenzhen, has been recruiting couples in an effort to create the first gene-edited babies. They planned to eliminate a gene called CCR5 in order to render the offspring resistant to HIV, smallpox, and cholera.
The clinical trial documents describe a study to employ CRISPR to modify human embryos, then to transfer them into the uterus of mothers and deliver healthy children.

It is unclear if any children have been born. The scientist behind the effort, Jiankui He, did not reply to a list of questions about whether the undertaking had produced a live birth. Reached by telephone he declined to comment. However, data submitted as part of the trial listing shows genetic tests have been carried out on fetuses as late as 24 weeks, or six months. It’s not known if those pregnancies were terminated, carried to term, or are ongoing.

The birth of the first genetically tailored humans would be a stunning medical achievement, for both He and for China. But it will prove controversial, too. Where some see a new form of medicine to eliminate genetic disease, others see a slippery slope to enhancements, designer babies, and a new form of eugenics. 

Source: MIT Technology Review

The World’s Tallest Statue

On Wednesday, India unveiled the world’s tallest statue: The Statue of Unity, which depicts the country’s first deputy prime minister and major independence leader, Vallabhbhai Patel. It is about twice the size of the Statue of Liberty, and taller than the previous record-holder, China’s Spring Temple Buddha.

Funny enough, it will not be the tallest statue for long: India’s state of Maharashtra is constructing a memorial to the Maratha warrior king Shivaji that will be several meters taller.

In addition to playing a leading role in organizing nonviolent resistance against the British, Patel was instrumental in forging a cohesive, democratic republic from the politically fragmented British Raj, which included both British-controlled colonies and over 560 self-governing “princely states” that had been indirectly ruled.

Through both force of personality and de facto command of the military, he managed to cajole nearly all these states to join India; this uncompromising willingness to do whatever it took to form India earned him the moniker of the “Iron Man of India” and “Unifier of India”. Patel was also the founder of the country’s massive civil service, the “All India Services”, which he identified as the “steel frame” of the country that would cement a fractious, disunified society.

Although widely beloved for his decisive leadership in founding India, many locals protested the construction and dedication to the statue, believing it to be a waste of well needed public funds; demonstrators were subsequently kept at bay during the unveiling ceremony.

See a slideshow of its construction here.

Source: BBC

Tyrus Wong

Today I learned that the lead artist for Disney’s “Bambi” was a Chinese-born illegal immigrant who drew inspiration from the art styles of the Song Dynasty.

Tyrus Wong was born Wong Gen Yeo on this day in 1910, in Taishan, Guangdong, China. When he was nine, he and his father immigrated to the United States, where they were initially detained, separated, and questioned due to the Chinese Exclusion Act, which prohibited immigrants from China. They assumed false identifies as “paper sons”—relatives of Chinese Americans already legally resident in the U.S.—and were subsequently released, ultimately settling in L.A. Continue reading

The Battle of Liaoluo Bay

On this day in 1633, China’s naval forces decisively defeated the Dutch East India Company’s fleet in the Battle of Liaoluo Bay, the largest naval encounter between Chinese and European forces before the First Opium War more than two centuries later. The battle was part of a wider conflict against Dutch efforts to dominate maritime trade and colonize the Chinese coast.

Governed by the Ming Dynasty for nearly three hundred years, China was at the time perhaps the wealthiest and most powerful civilization: its population of 160-200 million was about one-fourth the world’s population; its GDP is estimated to have been a third of the global economy; and its governance is considered to have been “one of the greatest eras of orderly government and social stability in human history”, with entrance examinations, a meritocratic philosophy, and several dedicated departments and ministries (such as for revenue, justice, and public works).

For its part, the Dutch East India Company (VOC in Dutch) was the world’s first multinational company and megacorporation, pioneering practices and organizational methods that presaged the rise of modern capitalism (such as issuing stock, directing foreign investment, and diversifying into commercial and industrial activities). It was also a de facto arm of the Dutch Republic, a commercial superpower that utilized the VOC to take on powerful empires in both Europe and Asia. The VOC possessed quasi-governmental powers, including the right to maintain a powerful military, wage war, imprison and execute convicts, negotiate treaties, produce its own currency, and establish colonies.

The Battle of Liaoluo Bay was something of a last hurrah for the Chinese; while they would score several more military and diplomatic victories against European powers, and would maintain an advanced military, China would eventually be overtaken and dominated by its Western rivals—though never wholly colonized or controlled—especially beginning from the First Opium War with the British Empire, by then the world’s new superpower.

Source: The Company’s Chinese Pirates: How the Dutch East India Company Tried to Lead a Coalition of Pirates to War against China, 1621-1662

Photos: Chinese-American Rivalry in Asia

As China grows more powerful, it is challenging America’s decades-long dominance of Southeast Asia. As New York Times reported, most countries are either leaning towards China or playing both sides to their advantage.

U.S. v. China

Even staunch U.S. allies are increasingly orienting towards China, namely in terms of commercial ties: every Asian country now trades more with China than the U.S., often by a factor of two to one, an imbalance that will only widen as China’s economic growth outpaces that of America’s.

screenshot-www.nytimes.com-2018.10.16-16-11-27

Nevertheless, many of the 20 countries caught between the two powers do not want to choose sides, instead opting to pursue “strategies intended to draw maximum benefit from both powers, minimize risks of angering either and preserve their independence”.  This is far from the clean lines drawn between the Americans and Soviets in Cold War-era Europe.

 

China’s “Rice Bunny” Campaign

Once again, the resourcefulness and tenacity of human rights activists in authoritarian regimes never ceases to amaze me. The Los Angeles Times highlights the efforts of Chinese feminists to begin their own #MeToo movement despite the government’s opposition to independent civil society, and subsequent censorship of the hashtag itself.

Employers, universities and even police are generally reluctant to get involved in sexual harassment cases in China and assailants are rarely charged and often never punished, leaving few women bold enough to speak out. When five women tried to organize multi-city protests in 2015 to focus attention on unwanted groping on buses and trains, they were arrested and jailed for more than five weeks for “picking quarrels and stirring up trouble.”

Yet there is evidence of progress. A prominent Buddhist monk, a university professor, the founder of a well-known charity, an environmental activist, a famous state television host, two badminton coaches and several journalists have all been accused of sexual harassment in recent months, with the accusations spreading rapidly on Chinese social media, though state censors usually quash the messages quickly.

When censors in China banned the #MeToo hashtag, activists came up with imaginative ways to get around the ban, using the characters “rice bunny,” pronounced “mi tu,” to tag posts or by using the emojis for a bowl of rice and a rabbit.

Though victims are often pressured to remain silent, Wan believes public awareness of sexual harassment is growing and pressure is building in China to finally create a clear criminal law banning sexual harassment. In a 2016 online survey of 6,592 university students, 70% reported being sexually harassed. A survey of female factory workers three years earlier by a labor rights group, the Sunflower Women Workers Center in Guangzhou, found the same thing.

[…]

One thing slowing the #MeToo movement in China is the lack of a clear legal definition of sexual harassment. Of the more than 50 million legal cases that were filed between 2010 and 2017, only two were brought by women alleging they were victims of sexual harassment.

The Beijing Yuanzhong Gender Development Center, which supports victims of sexual harassment and domestic violence, is now pushing for a national law to define and ban sexual harassment and discrimination against women and, for the first time, the government is actually drafting a measure that would require employers to take steps to discourage harassment in any form. Activists, though, say that doesn’t go far enough and want perpetrators to face the risk of criminal charges.

China’s intolerance for activism has also likely slowed the #MeToo movement.

Not if the Chinese can help it. To quote one Chinese lawyer featured in the article who handles these cases, when it comes to “the history of setting up laws and regulations against sexual harassment around the world, there was always blood and lives lost in the process, and that is the cost.”