Archive for the ‘World Affairs’ Category

Earthquake Strikes Haiti on Jan. 13, 2010; Thousands Feared Dead

It is another fairly quiet night here in Van Nuys, California. There will be some calls for police, paramedics or firemen. But none of them will have the overwhelming magnitude that hit the tiny nation of Haiti, on the west end of Hispaniola just over 24 hours ago. There is hardly any mention of this news on any of the social networks. Of my 600+ friends, only a handful have made but oblique references. Only one of them was serious. One wonders if people are just in denial about any other disaster other than theirs. Yet, when floods hit the Philippines, or when earthquakes hit California, all of Facebook is ablaze with news, as if we need to be reminded any more. We are so quick to forget about disasters when they hit someone else. When it hits us, we expect the whole world to sympathize with us.

We aren’t special; neither is anyone, for that matter. Disasters like these happen every year. Two years ago, an earthquake of magnitude 8.0 struck Sichuan Province in the Republic of China. Its death toll was a staggering 68,000 people, the worst disaster thus far in the modern age. The official figures for the Haiti earthquake aren’t out yet, but it’s expected that tens of thousands will have perished. However, no one is keeping score, and no one should. This isn’t a contest of numbers to find which one was worse than the other; all earthquakes are equally bad and horrifying. Even our 6.7- Magnitude Northridge Earthquake was devastating in its own way.

What makes this disaster visibly and humanly moving is the amount of human suffering and grief that has resulted because of it. Death is only the beginning. The aftermath is just as harrowing, with the aftershocks, the outbreak of disease, looting and lawlessness compounding the misery. When I talked to my Partner tonight, she was very much saddened after seeing visceral images of bodies strewn all over the city, the walking wounded, and the entire city in ruins, literally overnight. The epicenter of the 7.0-Earth- quake was a few miles away from Port-au-Prince, the capital city of Haiti with a population of about 4 million. The presidential palace was flattened, as were most government buildings in the capital.

Certain places like Northridge or Sichuan Province happen to be located in large and economically-powerful countries. When all else fails, they can rely on their patron government’s infrastructure to provide relief. However, Haiti is a small country with 9.8 million, a shade less than Metropolitan Los Angeles. A disaster right in the capital city of a comparatively small country means that its infrastructure is effectively crippled.  Emergency and relief efforts are well underway, but they aren’t moving fast enough, to save the dying and comfort the living. It isn’t for lack of trying: The capital city’s only functioning airport has been reported to be in such poor shape and with no air traffic control, that only one aircraft at a time can land and unload supplies. The streets are littered with rubble and dead bodies, that even the Prime Minister himself mentioned that he and his family had to step over the bodies just to make it through. Along the way, you will see endless images of suffering children, crying, singing hymns, doing whatever it takes to get succor. Because it doesn’t come quickly enough.  There is a general feeling of helplessness that we can all relate with, that we in our cozy lives awkwardly stay silent about.

About five years ago, another natural disaster struck, one that was too big too ignore. In 2004, a tsunami with its epicenter in the Indian Ocean swept along the coastlines of Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India and Thailand and took the lives of about 230,000. For those of us who live in strong, sturdy homes, in a country where our networks are large and technologically sophisticated, we have to be continually reminded of how lucky we truly are.  It’s easy to glaze over a news ticker that shows us a figure, a number, that doesn’t say anything other than the cost in lives. Bring the sight, the stench, the awful day-to-day living conditions of several thousand lives living in abject squalor, in rude shelters that could not withstand a well-placed blow from a small car, let alone an earthquake – that is harder for most of us to take.

That is what makes this event all the more moving, now as back then in 2004, and every single disaster before and since. We are so lucky, to live in a society that’s efficient and democratic enough to permit the blessings of capitalism and free trade, that allow us to enjoy, among other things, good food (not just food), clothing, and shelter that can withstand most disasters. On top of that, we have access to mobile phones, computers and other electronic devices that enable us to communicate our whereabouts to our loved ones.

People in Haiti and other impoverished countries aren’t as fortunate. A lucky few might have cell phones, and that’s the extent of whatever decent tech- nology there is. The buildings are old and decrepit, and waiting for a new disaster, if one hasn’t already occured. Roads are poorly-maintained. Haiti itself has gone through numerous coups and military takeovers. The uneasy peace these people enjoy only prolongs their abject poverty. Since corruption is so rampant, very few of the nation’s wealth ever trickles past 5% of the entire population, or down to the country’s infrastructure.  A natural disaster is a very sharp agonizing reminder to a nation already well below the poverty line, of how it can be literally crushed under its own weight. And that is what truly saddens us, not just the death toll per se.

As with any country that suffers, Haiti will eventually recover; but unlike any city in the US or China, it will be much slower. Other than do what little we can, all we can really do is to observe and be spectators, as we always have. There’s no need to moralize and stay smug in our sanctity; for if there is a God, He or She may throw at us our own version of apocalypse, for good measure (must I remind you all of 9/11?). This is not a call to action or an admonishment, merely a thought for the future, to remind those of us who are so fortunate, that we would do well to reflect upon and appreciate. Because we, as humans, always have to be reminded of our mortality.

Copyright Anabasius 2010

Photo Credits from the Following Sites:

Haiti Earthquake in Pictures

Haiti Population GRAPHIC Shows Impact of Earthquake

Major Earthquake Hits Haiti: A Washington Image Gallery

RocketBoom on YouTube: Haiti Earthquake

Part 2 of Several Parts: Sovereignty Issues of a Mega-Company vs. a Host Country

Hot on the heels of yesterday’s post about China, I recently learned that Google had declared it would no longer be willing to self-censor content on its PRC-based servers. This is excellent news for human-rights activists, watchdogs, and armchair critics (such as myself), implying that the Ca- lifornia-based search-engine giant is taking a stand (finally) on human rights.  The last straw was when a “highly-sophisticated and targeted attack” on their Chinese base occurred last month, resulting in the theft of intellec- tual property as well as the hacking of Gmail accounts of Chinese, European and American human rights activists. There is already talk that they will be shutting down operations in the Red Star of the East as a sign of protest, dealing them a black eye in business operations.

Hold your horses. Google is neither completely altruistic, nor will it neces-sarily shut down all operations anytime soon. It’s a business, just like any other. First off all, if Sergey Brin and Eric Schmidt really gave a flying crap about human rights, they would not have ignored the crackdowns, the pur- ges and the routine abuses of individual liberties. They would have thought twice about rolling out Google.cn, and all the Faustian deals that were made in that 2006 bargain. Talk of “make meaningful and positive contributions” to development in China sounds great, until you consider the various in- dignities Google has put up with, all for the sake of economic growth.

The decision to say “no” has little to do with human-rights and plenty to do with corporate sovereignty.  As an avid spectator of business events, I have observed these [sometimes] drawn-out “tennis matches” between nations and industries. Governments love business, because it means more to tax (operations, land, leasing, profits, etc.) and push around. As with all things that entropize over time, taxes can and do increase. But instead of being a good citizen and taking the extra burden on the chin, any clever business owner will do the next best, and legal thing, which is to transfer operations to a more business-friendly state or country.  Think of businesses as being just like people (by definition, a “corporation”): If they don’t like the way they’re being treated, they can always up and leave.

Businesses like Google, Yahoo! and Microsoft are different from individuals in the sense that they do not necessarily see shades of black and white, but only gray. They do things if it profits their operations. They don’t do things if it doesn’t.  They will respect the laws of their host countries, as Google had willingly shown back in 2006. What they won’t put up with is a gross vio- lation of their own turf – especially if the methods are illicit and there is no reasonable justification. To order a company to surrender information on the basis of national security is one thing; to blatantly hack into its databases is one step short of declaring veiled corporate warfare.

Some activists in China have reacted to Google’s challenge to pull out, saying that they have no right to act as if they are above Chinese law. Google has made no such claim, and the activists do not get it. The search engine giant has proven its willingness to work with authorities. But if the authorities cross that ethereal line of sovereignty of corporations (that American and European governments know better to tread) – then all bets are off. Google has a perfectly-legitimate right to protect its own interests and constituents. I sure as hell wouldn’t want a commie or any other totalitarian invading my account and exploiting my information.  If Google takes steps to protect the rest of its customer base against such a belligerent entity, then my faith in corporate sagacity will have been vindicated.
I doubt if a complete Google pullout is forthcoming, or that it will have any significant impact. Indeed, Google has more to lose from the move than China, so that such a move would be premature. Just a warning to leave may be all that is needed, to get everyone to talk rationally. As long as there are no more Chinese-sponsored breaches of security, then all will settle down.  If not, then this experiment is as good as done – and good riddance.

While Google scored a coup for being the first to capture this market, there will be no love lost for them when they leave. Its operations there make up only 2% of its overall market. Rival Baidu.com and other home-grown search engines have all but nudged it out of competition among Chinese-language web-browsing content. In the long run, the biggest news here is more symbolic than anything else. This event exposes yet more of the prob- lems and perils that foreign investors and businessmen face as they venture into the Last Great Totalitarian State that is China. As for Google, it may lose its business now, but it somehow redeem itself and saves face, becoming a new and unwitting supporter of human rights.

Copyright Anabasius 2010

First of Several Parts: Why Investing or Dealing with China Won’t be Such a Good Idea in the Near Future

Contrarian investors get little love these days. They are the modern-day Cassandras of the business world who go against the popular trend, often blamed (unfairly) for market spikes and massive sell-offs.  Yet, professional naysayers from George Soros to Bill Gross of PIMCO Funds have routinely made predictions about the state of a country’s economy or currency – and on occasion, have nailed it down. To date, the most spectacular bet done in all of history was George Soros’ $10 billion speculation against the pound sterling, which almost effectively ruined the Bank of England, while making him all the more rich and famous (or notorious, if you’re a hater).

Just as important but not as well-known is James Chanos’ short-sale of the late behemoth Enron, as it came to a crashing end in 2001. Recently, the founder and president of hedge fund Kynikos & Associates made yet another bold prediction: That China the upcoming economic giant, would see its own economic bubble burst after it implodes from a critical mass of excessive cre- dit lending.  In a New York Times article dated Jan. 8, 2010, Mr. Chanos was reported to be looking for a way to profit from an impending collapse of China’s economy, whenever that may be. That won’t be easy to accomplish. China’s closed-society scrutiny of every scrap of information flowing  inhibits any kind of speculator action.

Governments dream about such tight controls but could never pull off such stunts because of constitutional restrictions. China’s case is a fulfillment to the extreme. So from a businessman’s point of view, what’s the problem? Nothing… unless a lot of that information happens to be false, even under so-called “regulation.”  A hallmark of a properly-functioning government is accountability and transparency,which the Chinese have rarely exercised, except as a matter of convenience. In the meantime, if an illegal practice in trade yields mighty profits for the merchant and his sponsor country, it has been standard practice by government officials (especially in Asia) to wink after generous kickbacks and favors.

You can bet money that even with corruption kept under control, such lax standards will eventually come back to haunt China in the form of subpar quality standards for products and services and poor labor practices. This would eventually lead to lawsuits and/or shortened contracts, and ultimately little or no desire from foreigners to do business. Not all dealings with Chi- nese subcontractors will be bad, but the tendency for regulators on that side of the Pacific to overlook ethically questionable practices will encourage unscrupulous businesses to act with even more impunity. Only when they become a major embarrassment will true regulatory action (often belated) will happen.  One bad egg might even merit a hanging.

What about several thousands of corrupt Chinese businessmen who are complicit in a major financial collapse?  If exposed, assume that they meet the same fate. That’s not exactly a figure you could sweep under the carpet, though. Nor will their elimination solve the fundamental problems they’ve created, long after they’ve been purged and buried.

Copyright Anabasius 2010