By the short stairs

True to his nickname, “No Drama Obama,” the American president wants it known that he took no umbrage at the fact that there was no stairway waiting to help him descend from Air Force One last week when he landed in Hangzhou. But he’s a little miffed that critics have seized on that incident as symbolic of tensions in the US-China relationship.

New York Times correspondent Mark Landler detected a “sarcastic edge” in Obama’s reply to questions from the White House press corps in Luang Prabang, the last stop of what surely will be Obama’s final visit to the region as president. Obama seemed especially peeved by suggestions that “stair-gate” proves his administration’s much-touted “pivot” to Asia is a flop.

“If this theory about my reception and my rebalance policy is based on me going down the short stairs in China, yes, I think that is overblown,” Obama said. “Any reasonable person, certainly any person in the region, would be puzzled as to how this became somehow indicative of the work that we’ve done here.”

Well, reasonable people can disagree. And sometimes even unreasonable people offer compelling arguments. In this case, Charles Krauthammer (with whom I rarely agree on anything) raises an excellent point. In a recent Washington Post column he observes that no nation pays more attention to matters of diplomatic protocol than China.  China’s leaders, says Krauthammer, are “masters of every tributary gesture, every nuance of hierarchical ritual. In a land so exquisitely sensitive to protocol, rolling staircases don’t just disappear at arrival ceremonies.”

Yes, Krauthammer is a conservative pundit with a political axe to grind. But he makes a case with which few foreign China experts–regardless of their partisan affiliations–would disagree. Continue reading “By the short stairs”

About face

China is declaring the G20 economic summit, held in the eastern Chinese city of Hangzhou, a resounding success. But in the aftermath of the confab, it’s not easy to specify what, exactly, was achieved.

The positives: There were no public protests. The US and China renewed old vows to curb greenhouse gases. China’s president Xi Jinping and Japan’s prime minister Shintaro Abe managed to scowl a little less than usual while posing for photos after their bilateral meeting. The final communique refrained from singling out China for flooding global markets with low-cost steel.

For the most part, though, the gathering seemed to reinforce, at least for observers outside China, the impression that this year’s host country is a tense and uptight place. Continue reading “About face”

In Asia’s World City, a push for “localism”

Hong Kong is days away from legislative elections that are unlikely to alter the city’s political power balance but certain to highlight residents’ alienation from their mainland overseers.

I have an essay titled “China’s Hong Kong Dilemma” in the current issue of Bloomberg BusinessWeek in which I ponder the curious rise of Hong Kong’s “independence” movement. In fairness, to call this group a “movement” probably overstates its significance. There is zero chance China’s leaders will permit Hong Kong, which the mainland reclaimed from Britain in 1997, to break away and set itself up as some sort of separate, sovereign entity. Hong Kong relies on China for 70% of its water, most of its food and half its trade. For good measure, Beijing keeps 6,000 People’s Liberation Army troops garrisoned here.

Pro-independence leaders are a fractious and quixotic bunch–nearly all of them idealistic twenty-somethings, fresh from university. To date, their rallies have drawn crowds of no more than a few thousand. But, as with protests here two years ago, a heavy-handed response by Hong Kong’s mainland-controlled government has succeeded in transforming a loose collection of fringe dissenters into high-profile political heroes. Continue reading “In Asia’s World City, a push for “localism””

The “weird irrationality” of America’s China policy

I finally got around to reading Gideon Rachman’s essay in the Life & Arts section of the Financial Times. I know, it was last weekend’s Life & Arts section. But the ponderous title, “War and peace in Asia,” gave me pause.

In fairness, Rachman is a graceful writer. He marches briskly through “5,000 years of Chinese civilization,” Europe’s rise and fall and America’s emergence and decline as the world’s preeminent superpower, arriving finally at what he sees as the paradox of US foreign policy during the Obama years:

The US has deliberately hung back from deeper involvement in the Middle East, partly because it is attempting to preserve its power and resources for a struggle with a rising China. Yet power is also a matter of perceptions. So the vision of America that is less committed to playing the role of global policeman in Europe and the Middle East has–ironically–also sown doubts about the durability of US power within Asia itself.

Rachman believes that, if  Hilary Clinton triumphs in the U.S. presidential election, she will remain committed to the twin pillars of U.S. foreign policy since 1945: maintenance of open global markets and the U.S. alliance system. But Rachman says the stability of those pillars is being steadily undermined by the “easternization” of global economic and political power.

Continue reading “The “weird irrationality” of America’s China policy”

In Macau, Wynn doubles down

 

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In 2006, not long after gambling mogul Steve Wynn opened his first luxury hotel-casino in Macau, one of his top lieutenants took me on a tour. We began outside at the “Performance Lake,” a multimedia ballet of music lights and water jets, then worked our way along a concourse of luxury boutiques, through the Wing Lei Cantonese restaurant with its giant crystal dragon, across the crowded casino floor, to arrive at last at a special elevator, which whisked us to one of the lavish VIP suites where high-rollers from China came to indulge their passion for the game of Bacarrat. There my guide, a teetotaling Catholic who had risen up the ranks of Wynn’s operations in Las Vegas from blackjack dealer to floor manager to executive vice president for international marketing, offered to teach me how to play Baccarat on the condition that I swear to never forget the game’s first rule: The house always wins.

That rule has certainly held true for Wynn’s operations in Macau–at least until the last two years. In 2001, Wynn Resorts was among the first gaming companies granted a gambling concession in Macau after the former Portuguese colony’s communist overseers in Beijing decided to the end the two-decade monopoly of local tycoon Stanley Ho. As mainland gamblers flooded in, the tiny enclave boomed. By 2014, Macau’s gaming industry took in seven times the revenue of the entire Las Vegas strip.

On Monday, Wynn will throw open the doors to a second Macau resort, the $4.2 billion Wynn Palace. By all accounts, it will be the most expensive casino in the city. But Wynn’s prospects in 2016 are less certain than a decade ago. Macau’s gambling industry has been hit by a triple whammy of a slowing Chinese economy, Xi Jinping’s crackdown on corruption and a broader effort to transform Macau from high-roller haven to mass-market tourism destination. The Financial Times reports that gross gaming revenue fell 34% last year to $29 billion, and the Macau government forecasts a further decline of 13% this year to $25 billion.

Continue reading “In Macau, Wynn doubles down”

Blame it on Rio!

China’s bid for recognition as a global superpower in sports seemed back on track Sunday, after Chinese athletes in diving, shooting and weightlifting claimed gold medals at the summer Olympic games in Rio.

Those victories followed a shaky start for China at this year’s games, leading some to wonder momentarily whether China’s prowess as an Olympic juggernaut may be faltering in tandem with the declining fortunes of the economy. Some of China’s strongest contenders failed to produce gold medals on Opening Day. Continue reading “Blame it on Rio!”