The Great Eastern Japan Earthquake: Unmitigated disaster followed by a New Deal-type reconstruction?Posted: March 13, 2011
Four moving tectonic plates crowd each other in the eastern vicinity of Japan, and on Friday 11 March at 2:45 in the afternoon Japan Standard Time, pressure that had built up between two of them for years, perhaps centuries, was suddenly released, causing one to slip under the other. The ocean above this rising sea floor also rose, and these displaced masses of water shortly after inundated the northeastern coats of Japan. Thousands of people in Fukushima, Miyagi, and Iwate prefectures – over 10.000 are estimated to have perished from the village of Minami Sanriku alone – may have drowned or been washed back out to sea. One 60-year-old man from S?ma City floating on a rooftop was rescued 15 kilometers from the coast Sunday 11:15 AM and then airlifted by helicopter to S?ma City hospital. The thorough destruction of villages, towns and infrastructures are visible now in the mounds of debris comprising crushed houses, cars and ships that now cover the Eastern Japan landscape several hundred meters inland.
At the Fukushima nuclear reactor 1, technicians are struggling to contain two or more partial meltdowns, and powerful aftershocks are still rattling the population as far away as Tokyo, over two hundred kilometers away. Some Tokyo residents, fearing the possibility of radiation exposure, prepare to evacuate to Osaka or Kyoto so as to be near an international airport.
The earthquake has also unsettled the political gamesmanship in Tokyo and could conceivably bring a bipartisan calm to the embattled Kan government. The earthquake struck on the day when Asahi Shinbun had published a report implicating prime minister Naoto Kan in a scandal (surrounding money contributions from non-citizen resident Koreans) that recently forced Maehara’s departure as Foreign minister and was now about to engulf Kan. Now sidetracked by the sudden natural disaster, this scandal may be replaced with a groundswell of goodwill towards the sitting government – if it shows strong leadership in handling the present mindboggling number problems. Evoking Japans long-standing problems, as well as present, and future challenges, an Asahi Shinbun editorial struck a positive note Friday 13 March: ‘Unsurprisingly, the disaster has finally created political momentum for bipartisan cooperation for the well-being of the nation.’
Sunday budding bipartisanship cooperation did, in fact, emerge, accompanied with new possible rifts between DPJ and LDP. The conservative Sankei Shinbun reported late Sunday evening that during a Sunday afternoon meeting on economy between prime minister Kan and LDP president Tanigaki Sadakazu, the latter asserted that the issuance of government bonds would not cover reconstruction cost, and he therefore argued for a comprehensive reconstruction act that includes a time-limited tax increase. This tax increase should be positioned as a “Northeastern Japan Reconstruction New Deal” so as to mobilize all of Japan to join hands, he said. Kan agreed to work together henceforth. After the meeting Tanigaki noted that ‘if we maintain lavishing [funds on] child allowances and such, we cannot guarantee reconstruction funding. I propose that we begin to look into these issues.’
Then, Sunday evening Kan clarified his position: ‘It is a terrible crisis, but it is also necessary to begin drawing up new economic plans so as to make a new start for the coming era.’ He added, however, that that ‘I also approve of a proactive reconstruction, but I have not in any way said that tax increases are necessary.’
At this very incipient moment, then, there appears to be agreement to work together and, perhaps, to tie the reconstruction in with ambitious New Deal-style economic reforms. We could ask here if LDP is willing to let Kan show leadership with their New Deal idea, or if this idea is even economically feasible. But fundamentally, whether the reconstruction turns out to be basic or visionary, the question of financing is the immediate stumbling block that needs to be cleared before the clean-up and the rebuilding can begin.
Karl Jakob Krogness,
Ph.D. Japanese studies,Copenhagen University
Researcher, NIAS-Nordic Institute of Asian Studies
Today, the 10th of March 2011, the Fourteenth Dalai Lama announced that he will transfer his formal authority to the leader that the exile-Tibetans chose in the upcoming elections for a Tibetan Prime Minister-in-Exile.
The exile-Tibetans have established a state-like polity in India and have since the sixties made efforts to democratise it. The dual role of the Dalai Lama, being both a religious and a political authority, may be seen, however, as an obstacle to democracy. He is a non-elected leader and his semi-divine position in Tibetan society is a source of democratic deficiencies. Some Tibetans also view the exalted position of the Dalai Lama as an obstacle to the emergence of new political leadership and sincere public debate in which people may oppose the guidelines of the Dalai Lama-two problems that the Fourteenth Dalai Lama himself has tried to mend by disentangling religion and politics.
Exile-Tibetans have overall been reluctant to get more political influence at the expense of the Dalai Lama’s power. For instance, the Eleventh Tibetan Parliament-in-Exile, when it discussed the Charter of Tibetans-in-Exile in 1991, democratically decided that the Dalai Lama should hold a prominent position within exile-Tibetan governance. Several of the charter’s articles confirm this. In the democratic set-up, executive power is vested in the Dalai Lama according to article 19 of the Charter of Tibetans-in-Exile. He approves bills passed by the parliament, he can promulgate acts that have the force of law, and he can dissolve the parliament. Furthermore, article 36 on legislative power and article 55 on promulgation of ordinances state that legislation requires the Dalai Lama’s assent before it can become law.
The Dalai Lama has nevertheless insisted on reforms and compelled the exile-Tibetans to assume more responsibility and relieve him of political burdens, for instance, when the exile-Tibetans directly elected a prime minister-in-exile for the first time in 2001. Thus, the Dalai Lama’s own democratising efforts have led him into a paradoxical temporary position that he himself calls ‘semi-retirement’ now that the Tibetans hold democratic elections of their political leader, the prime minister. The idea of semi-retirement aptly captures the Dalai Lama’s efforts to separate his own political say from his religious authority, in that retirement from the political sphere allows him to dedicate his time to religious matters.
The Dalai Lama has increasingly distinguished between the religious and the political aspects of his authority as captured in the notion of semi-retirement. Now, in his March 10 speech this year, the Dalai Lama has stated that he will suggest changes to the charter that will allow him to completely withdraw from politics. He stated: “During the forthcoming eleventh session of the fourteenth Tibetan Parliament in Exile, which begins on 14th March, I will formally propose that the necessary amendments be made to the Charter for Tibetans in Exile, reflecting my decision to devolve my formal authority to the elected leader.” Let us see whether the new leadership emerging from the March 2011 elections will press for such changes or if the exile-Tibetans again will vote against the Dalai Lama’s wish of retirement from politics.
PhD, Assistant Professor in Tibetology and China Studies
Asian Studies Section
ToRS – Department of Cross-Cultural and Regional Studies
University of Copenhagen
Office phone: +45 35 32 88 32
Are the "flower revolutions" in the Middle East and North Africa endangering stability in China? by Christian GöbelPosted: March 2, 2011
These are fascinating times, as the uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East might well be the beginning of a “Fourth Wave” of Democracy. The late political scientist Samuel Huntington once likened clustered incidences of democratizations to “waves”. After the apparent ebbing out of the “Third Wave”, which between 1974 and the early 1990s swept over Southern Europe, Latin America, Asia and Eastern Europe, the time might have come for another democratic push. As a political scientist studying stability and instability of authoritarian regimes, I am extremely interested in the events that are currently unfolding, and as a China scholar, I naturally wonder if China will be caught in that wave should it occur.
To start with, it is quite significant that the current events in Northern Africa and the Middle East are not simply instances of political change, but revolutions, masses rising up to overthrow oppressive and often corrupt regimes. They are happening in regimes that, no matter their actual problems, were perceived as stable (which is also why we did not see the protests coming). They were long-lived, lacked an organized and visible opposition, their leadership appeared united, and the people were aware and afraid of the significant capacities to repress social discontent. That mass protests took place there despite these structural inhibitions means that theoretically, they could take place in China as well, something which some observers are predicting (and perhaps hoping for) and which no doubt the Chinese government is very much afraid of. Of course, one important question is if Chinese citizens have reasons to protest, another if they would like to see the regime gone. Both will be addressed below, but suffice it to say here that the developments in the Middle East have taught the Chinese leadership to take the repeated calls for a “Jasmine Revolution” in China very seriously. This is why it has displayed a massive show of government force at designated protest sites instead of taking a laissez-faire approach and trusting the legitimacy it has been building up for three decades now.
In a related manner, one might argue that social protests are nothing new in China, and that they even serve as a pressure valve for the regime. For years, we have seen an increase in the number of local protests, and most of these protests are directed against specific grievances. In my opinion, these protests are not system-threatening because they are localized, issue-specific and signify that the population still has trust in the central government to address these grievances. The “Jasmine Revolution,” however, is very different, as it addresses systemic deficiencies, is coordinated and encourages demonstrations all over China. In addition, the Chinese government has a very hard time dealing with the ambiguity of the movement: on the hand, the organizers profess that they do not want to overthrow the government, but to peacefully express society’s discontent with rising food prices, corruption and more generally the lack of government accountability. On the other hand, the term is deliberately borrowed from movements trying to unseat the governments in their respective countries.
When the riots in Tunisia started in December 2010, I doubted that they would spread to China. My argument was that in contrast to Tunisia (and perhaps most of the other countries recently gripped by protests), the last 30 years have not only seen unprecedented economic growth, but also important legal and political reforms. Despite continuing social inequality, life has improved for nearly everyone in China. Having seen the protests spread into bastions of authoritarianism like Egypt and Bahrain, I am not so sure anymore if this, while true, really matters. The protests in Northern Africa and the Middle East come at a very bad time for the Chinese rulers and could inspire protests in China as well.
Not only the recent hike in food prices and the looming real estate bubble, but more fundamentally the continuing revelations about poisoned food, fake medicine, environmental degradation and other issues that directly concern personal well-being are taken very seriously by all strata of the Chinese population. Many citizens blame the government for being too lax against these crimes, and suspect that corrupt officials are protecting those responsible for them. These and other cases of corruption and favoritism, which are all documented on the internet, draw, as blogs and comments show, an increasingly irate virtual audience. The developments in the Middle East might well inspire parts of this audience that a turn-out in great numbers will pressure the government to seriously address these issues.
This explains why there is potential for wide-spread and non-issue specific protest, even if it is not aimed at overthrowing the government. Why, then, the paranoia of the Chinese government? What probably troubles those in power are two things. First, although the Chinese people might be grateful to the CCP for the improvements in livelihood they have enjoyed in the previous 30 years, they might not be sure if the CCP is able to continue delivering these goods under the present system. Just like in 1989, protests aimed at systemic deficiencies might develop into protests directed against the system itself, simply because the system, lacking channels of political accountability and competition, does not allow for an institutionalized input of public discontent. Discourse within the movement might lead to a radicalization of demands and aims, which is especially likely if the government does not react adequately to the challenges presented by these groups. This is closely connected to a second issue, the regime’s conflict capacities.
Hierarchical organizations such as the Chinese security apparatus find it very difficult to deal with symbolism, satire, and ambiguity more generally. Their organizational thinking revolves around different kinds of threats, and the more evolved an organization is, the more threat scenarios it will have worked out, and the more responses to each threat it will have planned. Problems occur when an event that is not threatening to the regime is treated as one that is, as violent reactions against non-violent protests always prove the protesters right. Arresting a man for laying down a white flower at the McDonald’s in Beijing’s Wangfujing Street, beating and detaining foreign journalists reporting on a (non-)event, or blocking the word “jasmine” on the internet invites not only accusations of over-reaction, but also mockery of the regime. Such events might easily escalate, leading to even harsher responses and finally massive resistance against a regime perceived as unduly coercive.
While it is by no means certain that wide-spread protests will materialize in China, the government’s precautions illustrate that it is afraid of them and does not rule them out. The coming weeks and months will be interesting, as they will provide us with important insights into the capabilities of the CCP regime to deal with crises. One thing, however, we have already learned. The hard resolve to nip the peaceful “Jasmine Revolution” in the bud shows us just how unsure the CCP regime is about the amount of legitimacy, trust and goodwill it really enjoys among the people of China.
Christian Göbel, PhD
Centre for East and South-East Asian Studies