After months of she said/he said and “me too” in New Zealand politics, it was welcome today to get my eye off the microscope and onto a telescope to look further afield than our own small patch.
And no, I don’t mean to the US election.
Today as a guest of the Asia New Zealand Foundation I attended a media seminar Foreign Policy in Asia which had some excellent speakers looking at what is happening -- and what may happen -- with our neighbours to the north and north-left: China, the Koreas, India, Thailand, Indonesia and so on.
It was, as these seminars always are, fascinating -- and three of the speakers will appear on Media 7 this week. Tune in or pod-it.
The introductory remarks today were by former longtime NZPA correspondent David Barber who referred to Nick Davies’ new book Flat Earth News, a dispiriting read if you have any interest in how news is reported. Or not reported, as Davies argues.*
With what we used to call quaintly “foreign desks” closing all over the planet, and newspapers disinclined to pay even freelancers their modest rates to cover stories because readers apparently aren’t interested in “overseas news“, the present situation as regards the paucity of international coverage is bad enough without us entertaining how woeful it might be in the future.
Yet for us in New Zealand -- dependent on reliable, astute, informed (and to some extent insider) information about crucial trading partners and geo-political power brokers -- the time for thorough foreign coverage has never been more important.
Because they wanted to talk informally and frankly, none of the speakers may be quoted directly -- but some threads in their talks were readily apparent, not the least being the subtext that sent a frisson of recognition through the room: just how poorly we are being served by our mainstream media when it comes to international coverage.
The economic downturn which is just starting will be a catalyst for rapid political change across the Asia region: a hungry man is an angry man, said Bob Marley. But it is more nuanced than that.
The first speaker was Sidney Jones from the International Crisis Group who is based in Jakarta and was alarmingly knowledgeable about separatist movements in the region: she spoke about which Islamist groups were doing what (and, refreshingly, which weren’t doing what); how some countries were performing better as democratic states than we might think (who would have thought Indonesia?); why we should be watching the elections next year in the Philippines closely, and their insurgency issues; and how the violence in southern Thailand is at present Muslim Malay v the Bangkok Buddhist government but that we should know there were jihadists in the region, although they don’t seem to be getting much traction on the ground amongst locals. Yet.
Given our close ties with Thailand -- whether it be through marriage, friendships or simply holidaying in the region -- that is a part of the world which New Zealand media seems to overlook far too often. But don’t get me started on that again.
Dr Sudha Ramachandran, an independent journalist based in Bangalore, raised India’s relationships with Pakistan and China -- and about this time you realised that very big pieces are always being moved on a very volatile chessboard: the social and economic rise of India has been perceived as a threat by some countries in the region (notably those two mentioned) but who could know what was going on inside Pakistan? Is the military in charge and pulling strings to escalate a conflict on the reasonably quiet border with India so it can pull out of the western provinces near Afghanistan where the jihadists are?
And China is viewing India with deep suspicion despite increased trade: with a 9% growth rate India is an increasingly powerful economy (and taking steps into space, leap-frogging off the back of its massive IT industry) but maybe China is using a pincer movement through Myanmar and Pakistan to contain it?
This is big -- and worrying -- stuff. Especially for trade, if not stability, in the region. I came away no wiser but more informed, and more worried.
Believe me, the coffee and lunch breaks to allow for a deep intake of breath were necessary.
Anna Fifield who was the Seoul correspondent for the Financial Times in 2004-2008 (she’s now in Beirut) spoke of how the economy of South Korea has taken a massive hit in the past few months (I guess that means the end of this Big Idea I wrote about for Idealog's last issue) and just how they might cope given the astonishingly rapid growth they went through in the past three decades.
She had observed a complacency in Korean businesses towards the rapid growth of China, but the economic crisis may provoke an attitude change.
Of the mysterious and reclusive North, it is dangerous to speculate because we just don’t know.
Certainly Kim Jong Il -- who may be sick, may be dead, may be neither -- has, unlike how he got the job from his dad, groomed no successor.
That could mean a power vacuum, the military taking over and if that happens (and anyone who has watched the North cannot conceive this) things could get even more repressive up there.
They don’t have much in the North -- no computers, no information about the outside world, little food -- but they do have the fifth largest standing army in the world. It would be a pity of it got bored because they had time on their hands. The new US president might want to think seriously about this one.
But because North Korea is so desperately behind China and the South which are its neighbours, it is in both country’s interests to keep it contained. Hell, no one wants millions of refugees ill-equipped to handle the 21st century, let alone power points and electric lights. This won’t be like the Berlin Wall coming down. That was a different scenario.
And so the day went: Dr Jian Yang from Auckland University illustrated China’s rapid growth and emphasised just how much it had changed over the decades although outsiders might want more rapid moves to “democracy” -- a word its top guns aren’t afraid of using these days.
Jamil Anderlini, the Beijing deputy bureau chief of the Financial Times noted how the geo-political balance was shifting towards China because of its cheap labour, good ports and roads -- and perhaps its state control of citizens.
In an interesting aside he spoke from personal experience about how many educated and quite worldy Chinese responded to criticisms of China: they take them personally. This was something we saw on our streets in the weeks before the Olympics when the regime’s human rights’ record and annexation of Tibet had protestors out, and drew counter-protest from Chinese students who said these were lies/misreporting/anti-China rhetoric and so on.
Anderlini noted that in China for a generation, perhaps two, the party and the nation had become indistinguishable to its citizens. That‘s a mind-set we might have to factor in to our relations.
Dr Jian Yang went further: that during “the century of humiliation” (1840-1945) China had been battered by foreigners so today its people still cannot tolerate foreign intervention in its affairs.
These were all provocative ideas -- and there were many more -- and that is what made it such an interesting, and I think, important day. That was a view shared by the couple of dozen people there -- among them, I was pleased to note, half a dozen journalism students.
But where was the media in all this discussion?
In one way or another a few of the speakers rephrased this idea: Western journalists in liberal democracies enjoy a rare freedom, but what are we doing with it? Are we supporting or even just sympathetic to the struggles of journalists and people in places who want the freedoms we take for granted?
The international media in Asian countries -- not prone to the propaganda pressures weighted onto local journalists in many Asian countries, notably China -- has a responsibility to raise the uncomfortable issues (albeit sensitively) and to report back to us about what is going on.
But . . . what if nobody out here is listening?
* “All those interested in the truth -- outsiders and insiders -- should read it”, said John Pilger of Flat Earth News. When I‘ve finished reading it I‘ll give you the bad news in a posting.