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Published: Sat, 29 Apr 2017 00:00:00 -0400

Last Build Date: Sat, 29 Apr 2017 02:35:54 -0400


No, North Korea Isn’t "Super-Mighty"

Tue, 25 Apr 2017 00:01:00 -0400

North Korea is feeling threatened, so it has threatened back. "In the case of our super-mighty preemptive strike being launched," the isolated regime's state-run media warned Thursday, it will hit the "U.S. mainland and reduce them to ashes." The phrasing is classic Pyongyang, the bizarre mix of childish bluster and lethal armament that throws normal foreign policy strategy out the window. This same announcement from any other nuclear power would mean the start of World War III, but from North Korea, it's mostly business as usual. What isn't business as usual is the international response to this latest round of provocation. U.S. surveillance planes are reportedly on alert for another North Korean nuclear test, as are Chinese bombers. Vice President Pence told Pyongyang the American "sword is ready," and, after some miscommunication, Japan's Self-Defense Force began joint exercises Monday with the USS Carl Vinson in waters off the Korean peninsula. And though defense officials have denied a recent report of imminent U.S. invasion, there's no denying the feeling that U.S.-North Korea tensions are escalating. As ever with North Korea's unique circumstances, the prudent course for the United States may be debatable, but de-escalation of those tensions is not. An American strike on North Korea would be, in a word, disastrous. As Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said Wednesday, war "would be bad for the Korean Peninsula. It would be bad for China. It would be bad for Japan, be bad for South Korea. It would be the end of North Korea." Even in the best-case scenario—a tidy overthrow of the Kim Jong Un regime that doesn't take South Korea down with it and liberates a grateful population—the entire region would be thrown into long-term chaos. A new Korean war would easily cost America $1 trillion and produce one million casualties, Gen. Gary Luck, formerly a commander of U.S. troops in South Korea, estimated. A best-case scenario isn't even close to probable. If the U.S. takes up the North Korean offer of war, we risk war with China and North Korean nuclear, chemical, and biological strikes on U.S. troops stationed in and civilians living in South Korea. Post-regime change and an easy acceptance of American occupation by a desperate and ruthlessly brainwashed population is highly unlikely. South Korea may not prove a willing or able partner in the nation-building efforts that would follow. Realistic assessments of a strike on North Korea are in short supply in Washington. Graham followed his grim account with a hearty recommendation for war, recklessly advising President Trump to prepare for a preemptive invasion. That is foolish and dangerous advice, but hardly unexpected from a senator who never saw a war he didn't like. Though tensions may be rising, no North Korean strike on the United States is imminent. North Korea is not capable of executing any attack on the American mainland, let alone instantaneously reducing our country "to ashes." Pyongyang has yet to produce an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) capable of carrying a nuclear warhead across the Pacific Ocean, let alone a warhead that could survive the trip. (The military parade organized to honor North Korea's founding president this month included what appeared to be ICBMs, but there is no evidence those are functional—or even real. This is, after all, a nation prone to expanding its navy via Photoshop.) The medium-range missile test shot into the Sea of Japan back in February, for example, traveled about 300 miles. To hit California, a North Korean missile would have to go more than 18 times that distance. In addition to this technological inadequacy, the showboating that is a consistent feature of North Korean military development means a surprise strike is extremely unlikely. Pyongyang will publicly test its missiles as it makes them. As the Kim regime has said, the point of being a nuclear power is for the world to know you're a nuclear power. The United States will not be surprised by a North Korean ICBM. That timeline gives us options. Stooping to the[...]

Tillerson: U.S. Has ‘No Further Comment’ on North Korea Missile Tests. Good.

Wed, 05 Apr 2017 19:02:00 -0400

As the North Koreans continue to lob missiles into nearby seas and White House staff issues tough-talking but anonymous threats, we might to do well to take the advice of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. "North Korea launched yet another intermediate range ballistic missile," Tillerson said in a terse statement. "The United States has spoken enough about North Korea. We have no further comment." This is probably the best way to deal with the latest temper tantrum from a country that has menaced the region and exploited regional tensions with missiles for a quarter century. Ignore it. The North Korean regime feeds on attention and tries to use its missiles and nuclear brinksmanship as a bargaining chip to ensure their survival and feed their people, starving thanks to their totalitarian ways. Often, North Korea's missile tests appear scheduled around events in foreign countries—South Koreans go to the polls May 9 to replace the impeached Park Geun-hye. The frontrunner Moon Jae-in has promised more engagement with North Korea. He's also said he'd review the deployment of a U.S. missile defense system that began this year after being agreed to several years ago. That deployment has irked China, which nevertheless is careful to keep that issue separate from negotiations over North Korea, despite the two being obviously intertwined. President Trump and China President Xi Jinping are also set to meet in Mar-a-Lago later this month. An anonymous senior U.S. official said the "clock has now run out" on North Korea's nuclear program "and all options are on the table." The best option for the U.S., however, is to do nothing. Ultimately, it's in the best interests of the countries in the region—particularly South Korea, Japan, and China—to work together to guarantee regional security. Active U.S. involvement disincentivizes such cooperation and encourages polarization instead. China feels threatened by missile defense deployments because it believes those missiles are pointed at them. North Korea has repeatedly told South Korea, Japan and the U.S., its missiles have been and will be pointed at them. North Korea is a client state of China's, although often an uncooperative one thanks in part to its ability to exploit regional tensions. The problem for years has been the lack of a coherent U.S. policy regarding China. George W. Bush left office a popular figure in China, credited with promoting free trade policies and spurning anti-Beijing rhetoric. Since then, President Obama announced an "Asia pivot" a post-Iraq and Afghanistan wars policy sending more money, military assets, and other aid to U.S. allies surrounding China. The "pivot" rattled China and drove a more aggressive foreign policy. As late as 2015 the Obama administration was still confused as to why China had become more aggressive. During his campaign Trump made China a top enemy. In advance of his his meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping, Foreign Policy warned the Trump administration "has no idea what it's doing on China." President Trump has an opportunity to reshape the U.S. role in Asia, to stop being the region's policeman, something Trump the candidate often promised. The administration could benefit from more no comments and fewer ultimatums.[...]

Concern Over Tillerson Skipping NATO Meeting Misplaced

Tue, 21 Mar 2017 18:25:00 -0400

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson will miss a summit of NATO foreign ministers in Brussels on April 5 and 6 in order to be present at the meeting between President Trump and China President Xi Jinping at Mar-a-Lago on April 6 and 7. Reuters yesterday initially reported based on anonymous sources that the State Department had declined offers to try to reschedule the NATO meeting, but today, Reuters reports, Tillerson offered alternative dates he could attend. "We are certainly appreciative of the effort to accommodate Secretary Tillerson," a spokesperson for the department said at a press conference. Rep. Elliot Engel (D-N.Y.) called Tillerson skipping the meeting, in favor of a meeting between the presidents of two of the most powerful countries of the world, "a grave error that will shake the confidence of America's most important alliance and feed the concern that this administration is simply too cozy with Vladimir Putin." Tillerson has a planned visit to Russia later this month. Hysteria over Russia's purported role in Hillary Clinton's presidential defeat always risked poisoning already complex and deteriorated relations between the U.S. and Russia. Spinning scheduling conflicts and routine foreign trips for a secretary of state as part of some imagined Trump-Putin connection is particularly irresponsible for anyone who says they support international engagement over unnecessary conflict. Neither should European politicians and bureaucrats seek to do so. One anonymous senior European diplomat told Reuters that Tillerson meeting the meeting was "unfortunate symbolism," as Reuters reported after the State Department signaled it was interested in a rescheduling of the NATO meeting. In its earlier article, Reuters reported that "Trump has already worried NATO allies by referring to the Western security alliance as 'obsolete' and by pressing other members to meet their commitments to spend at least 2 percent of gross domestic product on defense." Yet for American and European politicians, bureaucrats, and policymakers interested in maintaining the NATO alliance, neither of these points should be a cause for concern. The Trump administration has insisted campaign period comments about NATO were not indicative of a U.S. withdrawal but interest in change. Asking other member states to meet a commitment they made, irrespective of how arbitrary it may be, is even less of a reason for concern. Other than the U.S., only three NATO countries spend at least 2 percent of their GDP on defense spending—Greece, Poland, and Estonia. The latter two border Russia and have extensive histories that sustain the political will for military spending, while the former borders fellow NATO ally but historical rival Turkey, which has also in recent weeks compared a number of other European NATO allies to Nazis, and most recently accused the Netherlands of being responsible for the Srebrenica massacre. Erdogan's outburst come after the European countries declined to permit rallies in favor of a constitutional referendum that would significantly expand the power of Turkey's president, the authoritarian Recep Erdogan, who has been in power for 14 years. Former Secretary of State John Kerry was criticized last year for leaving a NATO summit in Warsaw early to return to the U.S. to attend a friend's wedding in Nantucket and then to go see Hamilton in New York City, his second time attending the musical.[...]

Tillerson Suggests Pre-Emptive Military Action Against North Korea a Possibility

Fri, 17 Mar 2017 14:50:00 -0400

(image) In light of North Korea's recent nuclear and ballistic missile tests, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has announced that all talks with Pyongyang are closed until the country denuclearizes, reports the Associated Press.

Tillerson recently spoke at a press conference in Seoul, South Korea, as part of a three-nation trip that also included Japan and China. It has been described as a listening tour by the State Department in order to devise a better policy for dealing with North Korea, the AP story explained.

"It's important that the leadership of North Korea realize that their current pathway of nuclear weapons and escalating threats will not lead to their objective of security and economic development," Tillerson said. "That pathway can only be achieved by denuclearizing, giving up their weapons of mass destruction, and only then will we be prepared to engage with them in talks."

The secretary of state also announced that it may be necessary for the U.S. to take pre-emptive military action against North Korea if the country's weapons program reaches a critical threat level. "All of the options are on the table," he said.

North Korea became the eighth nation to have nuclear capabilities after successfully testing its first nuclear weapon in October 2006, CNN notes. Since then, the country has engaged in numerous nuclear and ballistic missile tests.

Just last week, CNN reported that North Korea launched four missiles, with three of the missiles landing just 200 nautical miles offshore of Japan. The act prompted Japan to hold its first civilian missile evacuation drill in the coastal city of Oga, per the AP.

As North Korea's weapon program advances, Siegfried S. Hecker, emeritus director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, told The New York Times that "Pyongyang will likely develop the capability to reach the continental United States with a nuclear tipped missile in a decade or so."

With this news, Tillerson declared that the Obama administration's policy of "strategic patience" is over. "Twenty years of talks with North Korea have brought us to where we are today," he said.

President Donald Trump has also weighed in on the situation in his typically outlandish fashion. "North Korea is behaving very badly," he tweeted this morning. "They have been 'playing' the United States for years. China has done little to help!"

As Reason Associate Editor Ed Krayewski noted last week, China is urging a diplomatic solution:

China, which has taken it upon itself to act as a mediator on the North Korea nuclear issue, proposed that North Korea suspend its nuclear and missile programs while the U.S. and South Korea suspend joint military exercises. However, the U.S. posture on the Korean peninsula has not escalated, and North Korea's erratic decision-making process on missile tests doesn't track neatly with specific U.S. or South Korean actions.

U.S. Carbon Dioxide Emissions Fall 3 Percent

Fri, 17 Mar 2017 10:00:00 -0400

(image) The International Energy Agency is reporting data showing that economic growth is being increasingly decoupled from carbon dioxide emissions. Basically, human beings are using less carbon dioxide intensive fuels to produce more goods and services. The IEA attributes the relatively steep drop in U.S. emissions largely to the ongoing switch by electric generating companies from coal to cheap natural gas produced using fracking from shale deposits. Renewals also contributed a bit to the decline. From the IEA:

Global energy-related carbon dioxide emissions were flat for a third straight year in 2016 even as the global economy grew, according to the International Energy Agency, signaling a continuing decoupling of emissions and economic activity. This was the result of growing renewable power generation, switches from coal to natural gas, improvements in energy efficiency, as well as structural changes in the global economy.

Global emissions from the energy sector stood at 32.1 gigatonnes last year, the same as the previous two years, while the global economy grew 3.1%, according to estimates from the IEA. Carbon dioxide emissions declined in the United States and China, the world's two-largest energy users and emitters, and were stable in Europe, offsetting increases in most of the rest of the world.

The biggest drop came from the United States, where carbon dioxide emissions fell 3%, or 160 million tonnes, while the economy grew by 1.6%. The decline was driven by a surge in shale gas supplies and more attractive renewable power that displaced coal. Emissions in the United States last year were at their lowest level since 1992, a period during which the economy grew by 80%.

"These three years of flat emissions in a growing global economy signal an emerging trend and that is certainly a cause for optimism, even if it is too soon to say that global emissions have definitely peaked," said Dr Fatih Birol, the IEA's executive director. "They are also a sign that market dynamics and technological improvements matter. This is especially true in the United States, where abundant shale gas supplies have become a cheap power source."

In 2016, renewables supplied more than half the global electricity demand growth, with hydro accounting for half of that share. The overall increase in the world's nuclear net capacity last year was the highest since 1993, with new reactors coming online in China, the United States, South Korea, India, Russia and Pakistan. Coal demand fell worldwide but the drop was particularly sharp in the United States, where demand was down 11% in 2016. For the first time, electricity generation from natural gas was higher than from coal last year in the United States.


In addition, China's emissions fell by one percent, suggesting that its use of coal to generate electricity may be close to peaking. This is good news for those who think that man-made global warming could become a signifcant problem later in this century. In any case, whatever else the Trump administration may say, domestic coal use ain't never coming back.

Chinese Premier Says China Doesn’t Want a Trade War—But That U.S. Firms Would Bear the Brunt

Thu, 16 Mar 2017 15:30:00 -0400

At his annual press conference, China Premier Li Keqiang warned that in a trade war between the U.S. and China, "it would be the foreign-invested companies in China, particularly US firms that would bear the brunt of it," citing an unnamed international think tank. "We don't want to see a trade war," Li continued. "A trade war won't make our trade fairer. It will only hurt both sides. I understand the whole world is paying close attention to China-US relations. China hopes that no matter what bumps this relationship may run into, it will continue to move forward in a positive direction." The press conference, at the fifth session of the 12th annual National People's Congress, featured pre-selected questions and well-rehearsed answers, as the Los Angeles Times reported. Li and President Xi Jinping have been trying to position China as a champion of trade and globalization in the Trump era, and Li answered his first question, from CNN about U.S.-China relations in the Trump era, saying he was hopeful. He referred to comments he made in October, when the presidential election was "white-hot," as he described it, that "in spite of twists and turns," U.S.-China relations have been "going forward" over the last decades. Li welcomed Trump's reaffirmation of the One China policy, which Li argued "forms the political foundation" of relations between the two countries, and said given that, "China-U.S. cooperation enjoys bright prospects." "We feel optimistic about the future of China-US relations on the strength of the extensive common interests that have bound the two countries together in the course of several decades of our diplomatic relations," Li said. "It is true that there are some differences between the two countries over issues like jobs, exchange rate and security. What's important for both countries is to stay focused on the overall interests, and enhance dialogue and communication to deepen mutual understanding." "Both our peoples are great people," Li said, channeling his inner Trump, "and we believe that we have the wisdom to properly manage differences." Li noted that focus on the trade surplus was misguided, saying he spoke with someone from a foreign trade company that told him "90 percent" of his company's profit "goes to U.S. firms." "Statistics show that last year, trade and mutual investment between the two countries created up to one million jobs in the United States," Li claimed. "We may have different statistical methods, but I believe whatever differences we may have, we can always sit down and talk about them, and work together to find solutions." Li suggested that by continuing to work on common interests, "the differences will account for a lesser and lesser proportion in overall China-US relations." Presidents Xi and Trump are set to meet next month at Mar-a-Lago. Globalization and free trade have benefited the entire world—trade has increased 30 fold since 1950, while the population has only tripled. Research has shown globalization has helped speed economic growth, increase life spans, and even reduce child labor. The Trump administration may represent the first time since the end of World War II that the American president has not been some kind of champion of free trade and globalization, despite particular ideological or other political flaws. The world is also a lot more prosperous than it's ever been, and from Latin America to Asia, a wide array of governments have come to understand the benefit of liberalization and free trade policies for their countries, even if the rhetoric doesn't always match. President Trump's hostility to free trade need not be a mortal blow to the trend toward free trade and the freeing of markets the last half century has seen. And tariffs, the tool Trump most often points to for a putative trade war with China, will mostly punish American consumers, workers, and entrepreneurs (and especially the poor!). Tariffs are a bit like Phi[...]

Could Impeachment of South Korean President Improve Relations with North Korea and China?

Mon, 13 Mar 2017 09:32:00 -0400

(image) The impeachment of South Korea President Park Geun-hye could lead to a reset of South Korean relations with North Korea and China, as The Washington Post notes. That depends on the results of the election due in 60 days.

Park succeeded Lee Myung-Bak, and both were members of conservative parties who supporter a harder line against North Korea. The rogue's state's latest missile tests coincide with the run-up to Park's impeachment. North Korean state media responded quickly to her legal removal, saying she would be "investigated as a common criminal". Park is indeed already a criminal suspect. But if her corruption makes her a common criminal, the sociopaths in charge in Pyeongyang are uncommon criminals. It's unclear who the intended audience of their gloating over Park's removal is. The domestic audience may wonder whether their criminal leaders, too, could be removed.

The election, scheduled for May, was, prior to Park's removal, set for December. There are as of yet no declared candidates, but at least four parties will hold primary elections over the coming weeks to select their candidates. The center-left Democratic Party has substantial leads in polling so far, and their early frontrunner is Moon Jae-in, who ran against Park in 2012. Moon, a former special forces soldier, served as chief of staff to President Roh Moo-hyun, who while he committed suicide in 2009 over graft allegations remains the most popular of former Korean presidents, considered far less corrupt than others.

Last year, Moon said he would visit Pyeongyang if he were elected president, and has sent mixed signals about the missile defense deployment South Korea and the U.S. agreed to last year, saying there were "both gains and losses" according to the South China Morning Post, and previously called for Park to leave the decision on the U.S. missile defense system to the government scheduled to be elected this year. Moon has backed more dialogue over sanctions against North Korea, saying the hardline stance had been a "complete failure" since it has not deterred North Korea's weapons programs. The North Korean military conducted a series of missile tests in recent weeks, amid the political turmoil in South Korea, the start of the deployment of the missile defense system, and the transition of power in the U.S.

China Wants US to Negotiate With North Korea, but Maybe China Can Deal With It on Its Own

Thu, 09 Mar 2017 16:00:00 -0500

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley rejected calls by China's foreign minister to restart multilateral talks with North Korea, which has launched a series of missile tests in recent weeks. "We have to see some positive action taken by North Korea before we can ever take them seriously," Haley said, suggesting there was little reason to believe North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un was a "rational person." China, which has taken it upon itself to act as a mediator on the North Korea nuclear issue, proposed that North Korea suspend its nuclear and missile programs while the U.S. and South Korea suspend joint military exercises. However, the U.S. posture on the Korean peninsula has not escalated, and North Korea's erratic decision-making process on missile tests doesn't track neatly with specific U.S. or South Korean actions. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is headed to South Korea, Japan, and China next week, and North Korea is expected to be on the agenda, although what happens will largely be defined by the State Department, the foreign ministries of South Korea, Japan, and China, and foreign media. Tillerson will not be accompanied by travelling press on his first trip overseas as secretary of state, a move CNN's Jake Tapper called "insulting to any American who is looking for anything but a state-run version of events" and to which DC bureau chiefs from various news organizations strenuously objected. While as a candidate Donald Trump questioned alliances like that of the U.S. and South Korea, suggesting countries like it and Japan are not contributing enough to their own defenses and relying too much on United States defense spending, since assuming the presidency his administration has signaled its continued commitment to long-standing alliances and arrangements. China's foreign minister, for example, also complained about the deployment of THAAD missile defenses in South Korea—the U.S. and South Korea agreed to the deployment of the missile defense system last July, and components began to arrive on the Korean peninsula earlier this week. The Lockheed-Martin-designed system may also be headed to Taiwan, according to local reports. As the pro-unification The Hankyoreh notes, China approaches the THAAD deployments and North Korea's nuclear ambitions as separate issues, but may use the former as a "credible alibi" for its failure to curtail the latter. China has been pushing for a resumption of six party talks, between it, North Korea, South Korea, the U.S., Russia, and Japan, which last broke down in 2014. A similar multilateral model was used for the talks that yielded the Iran deal, which despite the Trump administration's anti-Iran rhetoric, the president has not withdrawn from. Such executive agreements, subject to the whims of the particular president in power in any of the countries involved, are imperfect tools for détente, as continuing U.S.-Iranian tensions illustrate. Where Iran was a regional power, North Korea is not. It is largely a client state of China. South Korea has grown tremendously since the combat phase of the Korean War ended, yet U.S. military commitments to South Korea have not concomitantly shrunk. President Trump should not abandon the critical take he had toward America's entangling alliances around the world. China and ASEAN countries appear to be settling various disputes related to the South China Sea on their own and there's no reason to believe the problems on the Korean peninsula are not similarly resolvable. A managed disengagement by the Trump administration could spur regional cooperation on security issues, and would go a long way toward a more sober, realist foreign policy.[...]

Trump the Weakling

Thu, 09 Mar 2017 00:01:00 -0500

When rocker Tom Petty found out Republican George W. Bush was blaring his song "I Won't Back Down" at campaign rallies in 2000, he sent a cease-and-desist letter. Maybe the reason Donald Trump avoided the song in his campaign is that he didn't want similar trouble. Or maybe it's because he will, in fact, back down. After a federal court blocked his February travel ban, Trump tweeted, "See you in court, the security of our nation is at stake!" From that bold declaration, you would expect him to fight all the way to the Supreme Court. But he didn't. On Monday, he caved in and issued a new travel ban designed to appease the judiciary. Backing down is not a departure from his usual style. It is his usual style. Trump is not a guy who can be counted on to stand his ground. Often, he crumbles under the slightest pressure. Ask the Chinese. Shortly after he was elected, he took a call from the president of Taiwan, in defiance of the long-standing U.S. policy of recognizing only one China. Then, when the Beijing government took offense, he snapped back on Twitter, asking, "Did China ask us if it was OK to devalue their currency?" Conservatives applauded his manly bravado. Former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton said Trump was alerting the Chinese that "nobody in Beijing gets to dictate who we talk to." Actually, somebody in Beijing does. His name is Xi Jinping. He's the president of China, and he refused to speak with Trump on the phone until he agreed to eat his words. As China's government media reported, Trump tamely assured Xi that "the U.S. government adheres to the One China policy." Sean Spicer did his best to mask the humiliating retreat. Asked whether the president had gotten anything in return, the press secretary insisted, "The president always gets something." Of course he does. In this instance, he got a lesson in the ancient Chinese art of kowtowing. The surrender came as no surprise to anyone who watched him during the campaign, or after. After months of promising his supporters that he would build a border wall at Mexico's expense, he paid a visit to President Enrique Pena Nieto in Mexico City and, at a news conference afterward, admitted he didn't even raise the topic: "We didn't discuss payment of the wall." In fact, Pena Nieto said later that during their session, he informed his guest that Mexico would not pay for it. Only when he was safely back across the Rio Grande did Trump dare to repeat that our neighbor will foot the bill. During his second debate with Hillary Clinton, Trump informed her, "If I win, I am going to instruct my attorney general to get a special prosecutor to look into your situation, because there has never been so many lies, so much deception." He hasn't. After his boast about grabbing women by the genitals came out on video, several women came forward to accuse him of groping or kissing them without their consent. He denied it and announced, "All of these liars will be sued after the election is over." When is that lawsuit going to be filed? Probably right after he finishes fighting the lawsuit against Trump University. Oh, wait—he has already finished that fight, by capitulating. "I don't settle cases," he said last year about the dispute. "Watch how we win it." But in the end, Trump agreed to pay $25 million to the people accusing him of fraud. Idle threats are his specialty. Last year, he pledged to "immediately terminate President Obama's two illegal executive amnesties," one of which allowed unauthorized immigrants brought here as children to stay and work. But that order is still in place, to the disgust of anti-immigration groups. "His thinking is: 'We don't have to deal with this right now,'" explained Spicer in February. Oh, you thought "immediately" meant "right now"? On torture, NATO, seizing Iraq's oil and the Iranian nuclear deal, Trump's Cabinet officers have co[...]

Global Press Freedom at 12-Year Low

Wed, 08 Mar 2017 16:15:00 -0500

"A few days ago I called the fake news the enemy of the people, and they are—they are the enemy of the people," declared President Donald Trump at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference in February. Fake news like negative polls, inaugural crowds, and three to five million illegal voters? Now the Russian Foreign Ministry has gotten into the business of branding news stories as fake. The Chinese government has joined in denouncing as "fake news" reports that it tortured a human rights activist. "Trump's attacks on the media will offer a good excuse for Chinese officials to step up their criticism of Western democracy and press freedom," said Qiao Mu, a journalism professor at Beijing Foreign Studies University in The New York Times. "China can turn to Trump's attacks to say Western democracy is hypocrisy." The new report from Freedom House, Freedom of the Press 2016, finds that only 13 percent of the world's people live in countries where there is freedom of the press. In 2003, 20 percent did. That means that 87 percent of the world's people now have to endure fake news peddled and enforced by government thugs daily. There's worse news. "Press freedom declined to its lowest point in 12 years in 2015, as political, criminal, and terrorist forces sought to co-opt or silence the media in their broader struggle for power," notes the report. Freedom House director of research Jennifer Dunham writes: The share of the world's population that enjoys a Free press stood at just 13 percent, meaning fewer than one in seven people live in countries where coverage of political news is robust, the safety of journalists is guaranteed, state intrusion in media affairs is minimal, and the press is not subject to onerous legal or economic pressures. Freedom House began issuing its annual world press freedom reports in 2002 measured on a 100-point scale that evaluates the legal, political, and economic environment of each country with respect to media freedom. In 2004, the United States scored 13; in the 2016 report that score had risen to 21 points. In 2004, western democracies such as France, the United Kingdom, and Hungary scored 19, 19, and 20 respectively. In 2016, those ratings deteriorated to 28, 25, and 40 respectively. Even China's scores rose from 80 in 2004 to 87 in 2016; while Russia's rose from 67 to 83 during that period. More hopefully, Dunham observes: The varied threats to press freedom around the world are making it harder for media workers to do their jobs, and the public is increasingly deprived of unbiased information and in-depth reporting. However, journalists and bloggers have shown resilience. Often at great risk to their lives, they strive to transmit information to their communities and the outside world, and circulate views that contradict those promoted by governments or extremist groups. As most of the world's people know, the real fake news is calling the free press an enemy of the people.[...]

Chinese State Media Condemn Torture Story as ‘Fake News’

Fri, 03 Mar 2017 15:45:00 -0500

People's Daily, the largest official newspaper of the Chinese Communist Party, tweeted out to its nearly 3 million followers a story yesterday decrying reports of a lawyer being tortured as "FAKE NEWS." Xie Yang, a human rights lawyer, was detained by the Chinese government in July 2015 on charges of subversion and other crimes against the state during a round-up of activists and other dissidents, and earlier this year his attorneys released transcripts of their conversations with him, where he detailed the torture he was subject to. As The Guardian noted in its article, Xie's claims were "impossible to verify" but also "consistent with previously documented forms of abuse in China." There's little reason for readers to doubt Xie's claims. His only right, he said his jailers told him, was to "obey the law." For the Chinese Communist party, it's not enough that their grip on the country prevents many claims of human rights violations from being independently verified. Via People's Daily they've floated an unsubstantiated claim that an "independent investigation team" set up by the government has "concluded that the allegations are fake." Undoubtedly, readers of People's Daily amenable to their propaganda may believe them. The Chinese Communist Party's use of the term "FAKE NEWS," in the same all-caps style preferred by the president of the United States in his own tweets, provides some useful clarity on the primary purpose of the phrase. "Fake news" was first used in the mainstream media to describe stories those journalists felt were inaccurate or wholly made up that, some journalists and Democrats argued, swung the election to Trump. Fake news included stories of Clinton's health (which was not an issue until it was). From the beginning the charge of "fake news" was a distraction, a complaint not about the fakeness of the news but the unfettered freedom involved in reporting it. The U.S. never required a license to practice journalism—after all, that was how the British were able to control much of the flow of information in the 13 colonies—while new media technologies have lowered the value of or even made obsolete many of the media gatekeepers of old. In October, President Obama complained about the "wild west" media landscape, as if that were a bad thing, as if the relatively free flow of information was not part and parcel of American culture. The use of the term "fake news" assumed that this free flow was a problem. It was never precisely defined. Did fake news mean a story like the one about President Obama wanting to use weaponized AI to stay in office, or did fake news refer to stories not framed the way some people preferred, like, say, calling the Obama administration's secret cash payment to Iran a ransom or a "tribute"? In retrospect, it should have come as no surprise that President Trump, against whose supporters "fake news" was first deployed, would be able to use the term to great effect himself. After all, most people don't consider themselves to be fake news consumers (except insofar as you consume stories like the one about weaponized AI ironically and with full awareness of their fake nature). Instead, they tend to believe that stories that don't fit their worldview are the fake news. For politicians, the term is an effective catch-all for stories that are critical of them, something Fox CEO James Murdoch pointed out recently. Such a use is not so much a "co-option" of the term as a natural evolution. It's use now by the Chinese state media should be the least surprising development in the fake news saga, as well as a warning of the authoritarian direction our leaders have been going, particularly vis a vis free speech, for some time now.[...]

President Trump Stresses U.S. Support for One China Policy

Fri, 10 Feb 2017 11:50:00 -0500

President Donald Trump and China President Xi Jinping talked on the phone for the first time since Trump took office last month—Trump had spoken to about twenty world leaders before that as president, but had only communicated with Xi via letter after a brief November call. Chinese officials, too, were reticent about a phone call, particularly after discouraging reports of calls such as the one between Trump and Australia's prime minister. Nevertheless, the Trump-Xi phone call went as well as the Chinese government could have expected. There were no reports of the call going off-script, and Trump re-iterated his support for the "One China" policy, which was far from clear before the call. The "One China" policy, which states that the U.S. recognizes that Chinese living on either side of the Taipei believe they are one China, and that Taiwan is a part of it. The policy was first articulated in 1972 when Richard Nixon became the first U.S. president to visit Communist China. In December, Trump took a high profile call from the president of Taiwan that had reportedly been weeks in the making. That call broke a decades-long precedent of U.S. presidents and presidents-elect not contacting the head of government of Taiwan as part of the "One China" policy, which Trump questioned in the fall out over the phone call. Nevertheless, despite a loud outcry, particularly from the U.S. foreign policy establishment but also from China, the move appears ultimately to be of little consequence. The Chinese seized a U.S. underwater drone in the South China Sea. Trump, who was still president-elect, tweeted that they should keep it, after the Chinese government had already returned it. The Chinese government filed a diplomatic protest over Trump's comments but officials have avoided publicly calling for a more aggressive posture in retaliation. Far more influential on China's overall posture appears to have been the decision by Trump to, as promised during the campaign, withdraw the U.S. from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a trade deal between 12 Pacific countries that excluded China, part of President Obama's broader "Asia pivot," an effort to contain China. President Trump withdrew the U.S. from the TPP process. Some countries want to continue but Japan's prime minister called a deal without the U.S. "meaningless." In a speech at the World Economic Forum in Davos shortly before Trump's inauguration, China President Xi Jinping warned that globalization was not the cause of the problems the world faced. "We must remain committed to free trade and investment. We must promote trade and investment liberalization," he told the audience. "No one will emerge as a winner in a trade war." Shortly after Trump's inauguration, China's premiere, Li Keqiang, argued in a column in Bloomberg in favor of "economic openness" and offered China as an "anchor of stability and growth with its consistent message of support for reform, openness, and free trade." For all its foreign policy faults, the U.S. has generally been an outspoken champion of free trade in the post-WW2 era, from which the U.S. and the rest of the world have benefited tremendously. That countries like China could step up in defense of free trade, no matter how purely rhetorical or self-serving that defense is, is still a testament to just how successful it has been in lifting the world out of poverty.[...]

Mattis Assuages Concerns in South Korea, Japan

Mon, 06 Feb 2017 16:45:00 -0500

Defense Secretary James Mattis' debut trip to South Korea and Japan appears to have succeeded in calming some of the anxiety caused by President Trump's erratic behavior in the foreign policy realm, the Associated Press reports. Mattis' military background and level-headed attitude earned the praise of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. "I was very encouraged to see someone like you who has substantial experience, both in the military and in security, defense and diplomacy, taking this office," Abe reportedly told the secretary at a Friday meeting. The South Korean Defense Minister Han Min Koo also expressed a kinship with his U.S. counterpart. "I believe this was possible because we both served as active-duty servicemen for 40-plus years," he told reporters. Mattis is a retired Marine Corps general. His visit was intended as an alliance-mending trip to assure both South Korea and Japan that the United States was committed to mutual defense between the allies. Although the secretary's nickname is Mad Dog—a moniker he has repeatedly rejected as a media invention—he presented a calm face in East Asia. "Mr. Mattis was more loyal friend than attack dog, hailed as a welcome voice of sober restraint," as The New York Times put it. While in Tokyo, Mattis assured the Japanese prime minister "that the U.S. would continue to stand 'shoulder to shoulder' with Japan and that its commitment to the country's security remained 'ironclad,'" according to the Asia Times. He also promised to defend Japan's claims to the Senkaku islands over those of China, where the islands are known as Diaoyu. That prompted the Chinese Foreign Ministry to issue a statement on the matter, the Asia Times reported. "We urge the U.S. to take a responsible attitude, stop making wrong remarks on the issue involving the Diaoyu islands' sovereignty, and avoid making the issue more complicated and bringing instability to the regional situation," the statement said. While others in Trump's cabinet have called for a military response to China's actions, Mattis prefers other methods for resolving conflicts. "Mr. Mattis has long argued that diplomacy should be backed up by military might, but that force should not be the first recourse," The New York Times reported. "In the case of the South China Sea, he said, it is the diplomats who should be carrying the ball." Military involvement is not out of the question for Mattis, though. In Seoul, the secretary of defense assured South Korea that any nuclear provocation from North Korea would be met with an "effective and overwhelming" U.S. response. He indicated that the U.S. would deploy an anti-missile system called Terminal High Altitude Area Defense in the area to protect against North Korean medium-range missiles. During his confirmation hearings, the general "said the U.S. 'shouldn't be turning to the military to answer all of our problems in the world,'" Reason Associate Editor Ed Krayewski reported back in January. Of course, whether the Trump administration will adhere to Mattis' advice remains to be seen.[...]

Brickbat: Cultural Revolution

Fri, 03 Feb 2017 04:00:00 -0500

(image) The Chinese government has closed the social media sites of economist Mao Yushi as well as a think tank he is associated with. Mao, who received the 2012 Milton Friedman Prize, is a proponent of free markets and a critic of those inspired by the late Communist leader Mao Zedong.

Brickbat: On a Clear Day, You Can See Forever

Wed, 25 Jan 2017 04:00:00 -0500

(image) The Chinese government has told local officials to stop issuing smog alerts. Officials say the move is designed to end discrepancies between the information issued by local meteorological offices and that released by the environmental protection ministry.