Have a Strange Christmas!


Commentary: Trump, Taiwan and China


Today’s South China Morning Post:

Barack Obama: ‘My Incredible Journey’


Byron York writes:

…In the most recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, 73 percent of registered voters said the country is on the wrong track, while just 18 percent said it is headed in the right direction. The 73 percent figure is the second-highest in the president’s nearly eight years in office.

The poll was no outlier. These are the wrong-track numbers for the last ten polls in the RealClearPolitics average of polls: 67, 70, 67, 71, 73, 69, 79, 68, 60 and 66.


And yet, in spite of clear evidence that a majority of Americans believe the U.S. is headed in the wrong direction, the president exhorted the nation, “Thank you for this incredible journey — let’s keep it going.”

Obama spoke as if broad areas of American life are better than ever, even if there remains work to be done. Read the rest of this entry »

Quick Take from Hong Kong on Ruling Against China on South China Sea


Here’s a clue: The history of the 100 years before 1949 is taught in mainland Chinese schools with the explicit curriculum title of “The Century of Humiliation.” I have described how China’s history over the time since the 1840s is perceived as a comic book story of a superhero who was transformed into a weakling by the villain, but has now regained his superpowers. EVERYTHING is perceived as “getting even.”

Westerners who don’t specialize in the world I now inhabit can’t imagine the absolutely rabid nationalism that is the mainstream default in China’s public discourse and, wang_never.jpgincreasingly in private sentiment — especially among educated people. Basically the default level of nationalism makes Donald Trump look like Noam Chomsky … I am seriously not kidding.

This will be perceived as an “insult to the Chinese people.” Period. The legal and factual merits of the case will NOT be discussed in official media on the mainland (there is no other kind). Anyone who raises any kind of protest against that view online will be bullied and condemned as a traitor and agent of US imperialism.

There is ZERO chance of China accepting this. It will be lovingly placed into the treasure chest of grievances against the world (and especially the U.S.), to be taken out and paraded around on a regular basis — whenever Xi gets some bad economic news (which is all the time now).

China Notes the Approaching Trumpageddon

Drudge leads with this today:

20160225 China-Trump

Which links to this article at the Washington Free Beacon.  Basically, a Chinese official spokesman said that the US shouldn’t do anything to upset the world economic order, presumably referring to the general Chinese position that the U.S. raising tariffs as a response to China’s devaluation of the yuan would be a Bad Thing — without naming Trump as the source of this proposal.   Big surprise.  China’s in a very tight spot — a very, very tight spot.

Beijing has been running the money printing presses on overdrive for months, trying to pump liquidity into an economy that is turning to thick sludge while, at the same time it’s been springing leaks left and right in terms of capital flight.  In other words, the brilliant minds who make Chinese economic policy (once so beloved by Paul Krugman and the other geniuses at the New York Times) have had to ditch their grand plan to rebalance the Chinese economy from one premised on producing cheap exports to one based on internal demand and services.  This is what they’d like to be doing, by their own admission.  But the boat not only won’t steer, it’s sinking.

To the extent there is any demand out there at all for Chinese exports (and, compared to just a year ago, there’s not much), continuing on the course of being an export manufacturer is the only thing that can generate foreign exchange right now and for the foreseeable future.  If the Trumpocalypse were to occur and he were actually able to do the Smoot-Hawley thing, it would be a torpedo below the waterline for the Chinese economy.

So Beijing is basically saying “Hey, we’re both in the same sh!tstorm — you sink me and we both go down!”  They’re probably right.  But just in case we don’t get the message, there’s this: Another Piece of the Puzzle: China Builds New Radar Facilities in the Spratley Islands.

Pundit Planet Command Center



Space Dump

Three interesting stories from Parabolic Arc, a great site covering “New Space:”


Burt Rutan, arguably the greatest living aerospace engineer and designer of the SpaceShip One and SpaceShip Two vehicles, expresses the opinion that all the evidence is pointing to: The loss of the SpaceShip Two vehicle was due to pilot error. And here’s Bill Whittle, former aerospace journalist and now political commentator, on how things like this happen — and why they have to:


Elon Musk provides some new details on how SpaceX will recover the first stage of the Falcon 9 launch vehicle.  Spoiler: It’s amazingly cool.


Finally, here’s an article about something I’ve been hearing about for years: A physicist who seems to have developed a true “reactionless drive,” a staple of science fiction.  It’s only at the miniature demonstrations stage but, as this longer article at Boing Boing describes, the theoretical foundation for the work seems sound.  Well worth reading.

MURRKA! Chinese Rocketeers Fear SpaceX as Low-Cost Provider

According to Aviation Week, the Chinese space launch industry appears to believe that its next generation of launchers will cost more to purchase than those already being provided by SpaceX.


In other words, a product designed and manufactured entirely in the USA can beat the Chinese, who have far lower labor costs.  Way to go Elon — we love you!

BREAKING: Virgin Galactic Spaceship Two Explodes, Killing One

Here’s what we know: On its first powered flight with a new motor, Virgin galactic’s Spaceship Two had a major engine failure that resulted in loss of the vehicle.  Two test pilots, names still unknown, were onboard.  One died.  These are the only images I’ve been able to find:


There have definitely been those in the “NewSpace” community who have criticized Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic for the way they’ve managed the development of this vehicle — pushing too fast in some areas, while making little progress in others.  But it hurts to already see the kinds of criticisms begin that make me cringe: TIME already has an article up entitled “Enough With Amateur Hour Space Flight.”

Yeah — the Big Government way has done such a great job in the past: Two out of five of the space shuttle orbiters lost to preventable accidents (40% of the fleet, with a loss of 14 lives together) and the first version of the Apollo spacecraft killing three on the launch pad because it was an incinerator waiting to happen.  Those are just some of the more egregious examples. There are plenty more.

It won’t surprise me if this kills Virgin Galactic.  As a business and an engineering and project development enterprise, it is NOT the best of the “NewSpace” initiatives.  Unfortunately, there will be plenty of idiots like the guy at TIME who will lump it all together and insist that NASA, that paragon of efficiency and safety, manage all US space activity.

[EXCLUSIVE] Hong Kong Democracy Protests — Democracy, Strategy and Tactics

The Hong Kong pro-democracy protesters had planned to have some kind of vote yesterday on how they would go forward.  But they didn’t.  From the South China Morning Post, Hong Kong’s leading English-language newspaper:

Occupy Central protesters and observers yesterday backed an 11th-hour decision to scrap a poll on the way forward for the month-old sit-in, saying the move made it easier to enter into more talks with the government.

Protest leaders announced the U-turn hours before the electronic ballot was to start at 7pm and apologised for not having sufficiently discussed with demonstrators the poll’s methodology and objectives. But shelving it did not mean they had shifted their stance or intended to end the occupation, Federation of Students secretary general Alex Chow Yong-kang said.

Some protesters had said the poll was redundant. A huge banner that called for delaying the poll was hung from an Admiralty footbridge yesterday morning.

Occupy co-founder Benny Tai Yiu-ting said: “The public may feel there are problems with the movement’s organisation and leadership, and we admit that … I promise that in the future, we will give sufficient notice to and discuss with protesters before making a major formal decision.”

For me, the lesson in this story is that “democracy” is not a self-executing political panacea. Democracy has a value — a high value — as ONE element of a fair and well-ordered society. But democracy can only serve its proper function as a check on the tyranny of the state when it operates within a system of well-defined and transparent laws and institutions. It is not surprising to me that the vote called by the protesters did not happen. There was no framework of law and institutional operation within which it could happen.


Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protesters still occupy the ground in front of the main government offices — but what do they do now?

The smartest lawyers and statesmen in the rebel colonies worked for many months to draft the Constitution of the United States before it was finally implemented. Doing this created the framework of laws and institutions in which democracy operated as only one dynamic part of a system that was crafted after extremely careful deliberation by some of the wisest men who have ever considered these issues. The Framers of the US Constitution did their work after putting in place a temporary structure — the Articles of Confederation — to ensure a stable environment for long enough to work out the permanent “political operating system” for their country. They did not do their work in the heated stress and passion of an armed rebellion against the Crown. They first made an imperfect compromise in the Articles of Confederation to buy themselves the time they knew it would take to work out a truly well-ordered system. My advice to the protesters: study history.

“For me, the lesson in this story is that “democracy” is not a self-executing political panacea. Democracy has a value — a high value — as ONE element of a fair and well-ordered society.”

The problem, of course, is that there is no time for study.  The pro-democracy protesters have been improvising and responding to the largely pro-Beijing government’s actions from the beginning.  They are working from a base that is fueled by legitimate passion for liberty and fear of tyranny, but without a well-established leadership operating within a widely-recognized and accepted organizational structure.

“But democracy can only serve its proper function as a check on the tyranny of the state when it operates within a system of well-defined and transparent laws and institutions.”

In any conflict, all things being equal, the side with the more easily achieved strategic goal and the larger number of tactical options will prevail. For better or worse, in this situation, the side with both of these advantages is the pro-establishment side. For the pro-Beijing Hong Kong government, the strategic “victory condition” is maintaining the status quo, and they have a broad range of tactical options along the spectrum of patiently waiting out the protesters on one end to forcefully removing them on the other. I fear the pro-democracy side may not really realize this or, if they do, can think of no tactical response other than “keep doing what we’re doing.” Without regard to the merits of either side’s goals, this makes the pro-democracy side’s strategic and tactical position very weak. Unless they realize this and adjust their strategy and tactics accordingly, the outcome for them does not look good.

“In any conflict, all things being equal, the side with the more easily achieved strategic goal and the larger number of tactical options will prevail. For better or worse, in this situation, the side with both of these advantages is the pro-establishment side.”

This grim picture is playing itself out in a situation where the largest number of the anti-establishment protesters are high school and college students, without strong and experienced leadership that has been tested over time, and without any organizational infrastructure to support the building of strategic or tactical consensus.  Unless this situation changes, it looks increasingly unlikely that the pro-democracy movement will put itself into a situation where it can achieve a real “victory.”  If their only tool is a “passion for democracy,” they cannot prevail.


Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement is fenced in by its own passions.

EXCLUSIVE: Hong Kong Democracy Demonstrations, Day 17 — The Empire (sort of) Strikes Back (Hong Kong Style)

Starting this morning, Hong Kong police executed an operation to clear street barricades on Queensway Road and other major arteries in Hong Kong.  It’s unclear to me how the clearing has gone in Causeway Bay and on Nathan Road on the Kowloon side. But in the Admiralty district immediately in front of my office, I’ve been taking periodic trips downstairs to see and photograph the police work methodically all morning and into the afternoon to push protesters back out of the road and systematically dismantle and clear the barricades they had built.

I saw NO violence.  The vast majority of the police wore empty holsters — only very senior officers carried their sidearms.  No riot weapons (shotguns, tear gas grenade launchers) were evident, but other riot gear was visible — small clear plastic shields and helmets (although none of the police were wearing helmets).

A few students were standing on the sidelines weeping, while others had pulled back to the barricades that protected the approaches to the main protest site in front of the government offices, a block away.  Police were making no attempt to clear those barriers.  During one phase of the clearing, the police formed a cordon to allow protesters to retrieve their tents and other personal items from the underpass where they’d been camping.

At one key point along Queensway, students were sitting in the streets leading to the main road.  A line of police standing at the edge of Queensway faced off against this group to keep the students from moving back into the main road.  As of now (1:30 PM Hong Kong time) that is the only large group of police still present on the main road.  I suspect this may stay this way to keep the protesters from trying to re-block Queensway.

All of this was done in what I think of as “Hong Kong style:” Compared to anywhere else in the world (including definitely anywhere else in China), everyone was incredibly polite on both sides, there were a minimum of raised voices, and the police force was professional and outright courteous to the protesters and curious passersby and people who work in the area who had to navigate the work of barricade clearing that was underway all along the road. I saw no arrests and have heard of none.  I spoke with one police officer who told me that no arrests were planned.  The entire operation was very well organized and executed in a very efficient manner — typical Hong Kong.

Now the big question is how the pro-democracy demonstrators will react.  Over the last week or so, they have proved themselves to be a largely leaderless movement.  Will they try to move back onto the main roads and block them again?  If they do, I fear they may lose significant popular support — and that the police response might not be so polite next time.


Police blockade of area where protesters had encamped under a road crossing.


Police line blocking access to the protester camp under a road crossing on Queensway.


Police lines blocked access to the blockade-clearing operation.


Police carried out the clearing operation with precision and . . . politeness.


After yesterday’s tense confrontation with the “Antis,” the protesters had reinforced their barricades with bamboo fencing. That didn’t last long.


Police cordon through which protesters retrieved personal items left at their encampment when the clearing operation had begun earlier in the morning.


Exclusive PunditCam aerial view of police action on Queensway.


Police line opposite students sitting in access road.


Police and democracy demonstrators face off at the edge of Queensway.


By early afternoon, a few umbrellas are all that was left of the protester encampment in front of the Bank of China Tower.


Students pushed out of the encampment discussing their next steps.


Demonstrators at one of the barricade sites still surrounding the main protest area in front of the central government office.


The main protest site was undisturbed.

EXCLUSIVE: Hong Kong Democracy Demonstrations Day 16 — The Empire Strikes Back (sort of)

About an hour and half ago a group opposed to the pro-democracy protesters made a concerted attempt to take down the barricades on Queensway Boulevard near where I work.  Hearing the commotion, I headed down and snapped some pics.  After about a tense hour, the “Antis” backed down and left in groups of ten or twelve.


The “Anti” group heading East on Queensway toward a protester blockade. I’d say there were between 250 and 500 people in this group.


The “Anti” group was accompanied by a handful of taxis. They chanted “OPEN, OPEN” in Cantonese.


The police very quickly mustered and formed lines to separate the two groups.


Looking south, with the “Midlevels” neighborhood (where REALLY rich people — the 0.001% — live in Hong Kong) in the background


Soon the largest group on the scene were curious people drawn down from the surrounding skyscrapers.


Police escort a couple of angry “Anti” folks away who had gotten on the protester side of the barricades and tried to pick fights — I personally witnessed their aggressiveness.


Police lines like this formed very fast to hold strategic roads leading to the site of the confrontation.


Police movements around the area were very well coordinated, and their fast work averted an ugly fight. I personally observed multiple occasions where individual policemen and policewomen acted very calmly and professionally to defuse small confrontations.


The average age of the “Anti” people was probably 40 years higher than the pro-democracy protesters. Interestingly, I observed quite a few groups like this of fairly elderly people who seemed to have come together and, in the end left together — accompanied by one or two younger people who seemed to be organizing them.


More of what I called the “Grey Brigade” that I watched for some time. I was convinced by what I saw that they had come and departed as a group organized by a much smaller number of younger people.

EXCLUSIVE: Hong Kong Democracy Demonstrations, Day 13 — Comics and Cartoons

The talks between protest leaders and government representatives didn’t happen — the students backed out when they felt the agenda for the first meeting was to be too limited.  They called for a surge in attendance at the main blockaded site in front of the government office last night, and thousands showed up.  Today, I walked down to the site in the early afternoon.  I sensed a relaxed atmosphere among the demonstrators, and more signs that they’re committed to the long haul, including setting up a “study hall” for kids to keep up with the school work they are missing.  Also, both Asian and Western comics and cartoons are making their way into more and more of the new posters that constantly pop up around the site.  Some of the images below are very clever adaptations of the iconography of American comics — something that would give hardliners in Beijing (is there any other kind now?) serious heartache if they got the jokes.












If (like me) you”re a Marvel comics fan, click this to view the larger version and savour the sheer genius


EXCLUSIVE: Hong Kong Democracy Demonstrations, Day 11 — Today’s Sign

There is little true “news” from Hong Kong about the pro-democracy demonstrations.  The students and others in the pro-democracy movement are being urged by supporters to get better organized before talks with the government begin tomorrow.  Meanwhile, various reports have appeared in world media to the effect that there is effectively no support for the Hong Kong democracy movement on the mainland.  I think these are accurate.  The vast majority of Chinese have no idea what’s going on in Hong Kong other than what is spoon-fed to them by the party-approved media, and a common view of Hongkongers on the mainland is that they are “ungrateful,” unpatriotic and too influenced by Western ideas and media.

My personal opinion is that the demonstrators need to declare a tactical victory, raise the road blockades and think very hard about organizing for the long game — the very, very long game.

Meanwhile, two new signs at the blockade outside my office:


EXCLUSIVE: Hong Kong Democracy Demonstrations Day 10

I’ve been busy with work-work and only have time for a quick update and some pics from a lunchtime walk down to the main protest site in front of the government offices. (…and no time to do translations; if you don’t read Chinese, just make something up . . .) The weather has FINALLY begun to change from broiling summer heat and humidity to the golden “Autumn” Hong Kong experiences — clear skies, relatively dry air and temperatures that would be normal in San Diego. This has taken some heat (literally) off the protesters who continue to hold their ground.  Local news is reporting that “leaders” of the student movement and representatives of the government have agreed to begin talks on Friday aimed at ending the standoff.  It’s hard to see what could come of them but my personal opinion is that pressure is mounting on the protesters from fear that the barricaded roads may be alienating more and more Hongkongers — especially in Kowloon on the other side of the harbor.


















EXCLUSIVE: Hong Kong Democracy Demonstrations Day 7 — More Scenes and Signs

Last night the local press was full of reports of scuffles and fights breaking out between demonstrators and groups of men — civilians, not police — who were confronting them in the blockade of Nathan Road on the Kowloon side of the harbour.  This neighborhood is far more “blue collar” than the posh areas on the island (where I live) that have been blocked.  Some of those attacking the students have been confirmed to be men with “triad” backgrounds.  The triads are Hong Kong organized crime gangs that are the analog of the Japanese yakuza or the US mafia.  The demonstrators believe the triads have been hired by Beijing’s secret police to create provocations and bad press — to give the impression of popular opposition to the student movement.  Police finally stepped in and calmed things down, but the pro-Beijing commenters are out in force on Hong Kong news websites citing the incidents as evidence of popular, grassroots opposition to the street blockades.

A Saturday stroll through the Central/Admiralty barricades to the blockaded government complex revealed significantly reinforced barriers across the roads, and a still impressive number of protesters in front of the main government building.  Periodic rain squalls and a week on the streets haven’t undermined what looks like a committed core of activists who seem to give no indication of abandoning their blockades of main roads in Hong Kong.


An unmanned barricade on the far western edge of the Central demonstration area in front of the famous Mandarin Oriental hotel. A close look reveals that the demonstrators are now using stout zip ties and plastic wrap to make it impossible to clear the barricades quickly.


The westernmost manned outpost in Central — a small, lonely encampment.


A rare sight in 21st century Hong Kong — a phone booth. It bore a few notes from the protesters.


There are lots of puns and plenty of wordplay in both English and Chinese throughout the site — although what is clever in one language is just straightforward in the other.


One of Hong Kong’s busiest roads remained a pedestrian walkway on the seventh day of the demonstrations.


The ubiquitous umbrella combined with the 5-petaled flower symbol of Hong Kong.


“We want genuine universal suffrage” “Hongkongers supporting Hongkongers”



“Hong Kong” “Hope”



Hongkongers making the pilgrimage along the blocked freeway to the main demonstration site has become a regular outing.



Clearly there are some engineering students among the protesters.


Cresting the top of the overpass (“flyover” in Hong Kong’s UK-influenced English), the view of the main center of the demonstration.


Demonstrators have settled into life on the streets.


“689” is code for CY Leung — the number of votes the governor received from the Beijing-controlled electoral council.




A wall covered with post-it notes containing answers to the question “Why are we here” is a magnet for the press and visiting locals.





“Occupy Central” is (was?) the name of a semi-organized group of opposition political figures. The students have been out ahead of “OC” all through this process, for good or ill.



The Chinese is a clever pun on the word for “patriotism” — the meaning is “sorrowful for my country.”


“The people of Hong Kong thank you.”


A comment on the people who attacked protesters in Kowloon last night.


The gate to the main entrance to the government complex — now covered in yellow ribbons and protest signs.


Although the average age of the protesters seems to be somewhere around 20, it isn’t hard to find groups like this — who in more normal times might be doing tai chi in Hong Kong Park.



A van delivering hot meals to the protesters.

EXCLUSIVE: Hong Kong Democracy Demonstrations Day 6 — Scenes and Signs

A noon-time walk through the Central/Admiralty demonstration site in front of the main government offices revealed that the end of the National Day holiday and periodic drenching rain had thinned the crowd somewhat, but that there were still more than enough demonstrators to hold the blockade.  Local news sources report that there are some talks going on through intermediaries, but there seems to be no possibility that CY Leung (the Beijing-approved Hong Kong head of government) will resign as the protesters have demanded, nor that Beijing will modify its ruling that candidates for chief executive elections to be held in 2017 will have to be nominated by a body that Beijing will control.  At this point it is hard to see how the demonstrators can stand down without seeming to have been defeated.  Yet it also seems that many in the city are tiring of the disruptions caused by the barricades across three key roadways in a place where limited space means that there are few, if any, alternative routes.


The main entry way to the central government offices, still blocked. The banner says “My parents cry for me; I cry for the future.”


A flyer identifying suspected agents provocateur — they are accused of posing as demonstrators and urging violent action.


A poem entitled “Our Generations’s Tiananmen” — the gist is that although we may die, someday the dream of democracy and freedom will be realized.


“There is no mass demonstration without the masses.”


“Value (our) supplies; carry out refuse.”


A Chinese flag with the stars replaced by the words “Corruption, Illicit Sexual Relations, Obscenity/Excess, Theft, Plunder”


“Don’t become divided”


“[an obscenity involving one’s mother]” to China; for Hong Kong, “Stay strong” (There may be a second level of meaning here connecting the two sentiments . . .)




“Our Demand: Just Universal Suffrage” “Our struggle: Peace, liberty, prosperity”


This seems to be a message from one element of the demonstrators who want to limit the action to just the one area in front of the central government offices and abandon the blockade in the Mon Kok area of Kowloon across the harbor.


The periodic heavy rain has pushed people to congregate under the pedestrian walkways leading to the blockaded government offices


A large contingent held the blockade at a major overpass leading to the government offices. The International Finance Center Tower — the tallest building on Hong Kong island — stands about seven blocks to the west.


Banners on the pedestrian walkway above the center of the demonstration: “Police and citizens – from the same root” and “Support Hongkongers”


The Chinese in the middle: “Peace”


“How do you know things will be better tomorrow?” “We don’t know, but we have hope.”


“A clear appeal for democracy; seeking public nominations”

EXCLUSIVE: Hong Kong Democracy Demonstrations — Night 4

The leading English language paper in Hong Kong is reporting that “leaders” of the student demonstrators have set a deadline of tomorrow for Hong Kong’s Chief Executive (basically, the governor), C.Y. Leung, to resign.  If he doesn’t, they say they’ll start to “occupy” government buildings:


I assume that if this happens, things may well turn ugly again, as they did on the first night when riot police fired tear gas into the crowd and sprayed the students with pepper spray.

But tonight, in the middle of the two-day National Day holiday (ironically, celebrating the 65th anniverary of the founding of the Peoples Republic of China), the crowds at the Central/Admiralty district site swelled and an almost carnival-like atmosphere prevailed:


Hongkongers have donated thousands of umbrellas to the demonstrators. The movement has come to be known as the “Umbrella Revolution,” because the students used umbrellas to protect themselves from pepper spray on the first night.


Pictures of C.Y. Leung taped to the street.


Many of the students have been on site for days.


This young lady was drawing caricatures of her companions.



Although the majority of Hongkongers are Cantonese-speaking Chinese, Hong Kong is a multi-ethnic city and many groups had signs expressing solidarity.


Signs along the blocked freeway’s guardrails in many languages expressed support for the demonstrators.


The iconic Bank of China Tower provides a backdrop to one high spot favored by photographers capturing the throng.


The sea of people jammed into the road in front of the central government offices.


Distribution of supplies continues to improve. Stations like this are common throughout the area.


The pedestrian overpass leading to the central government building is festooned with pro-democracy banners and slogans urging Hongkongers to maintain their resolve.


Volunteers press water bottles and food on people passing along the main walkway through the heart of the demonstration.


Volunteers man a spot set aside for crossing over the concrete barriers on either side of the blocked road.


A sea of lights as the crowd waves their cell phones.


You can just make out the cell phone lights through the crowd.


Many posters used the umbrella motif.


C.Y. Leung is a popular subject of protest art work.


The first aid area I spotted a couple of days ago has grown into a well-manned clinic.