Hey hey, ho ho, Jon Meade Huntsman’s got to go.

It’s amazing how much leeway people will give you if you speak a bit of Chinese. Take, for example, US Ambassador to China, Jon Huntsman. After Obama selected him in 2009, smart people greeted his ascension to Beijing as a masterstroke based upon two factors: a) Obama had just eliminated a potential rival for his re-election in 2012; and b) Huntsman is a China expert, mostly based – best as I can tell – upon whatever language proficiency he gained during a couple of years serving as a missionary in Taiwan. I’ll leave for people with more ability than me to determine if Huntsman’s Chinese is as good as advertised, and rather get to the question of his current China expertise and judgment.

[addendum: and they have. Gady Epstein of Forbes tweets: "Caveat: Huntsman had quality resume of diplomatic & trade experience with Asia. Chinese lang was just a bit of icing."]

Last Sunday somebody on the interwebs called for a ‘Jasmine Revolution’ to take place in 13 Chinese cities. The source of this message remains a complete mystery (publicly, at least), and the response to it was – charitably – underwhelming. Multiple accounts suggest that it mostly attracted foreign journalists and cops. At least, that was the story before yesterday when video surfaced of Ambassador Huntsman strolling by the McDonald’s where the Beijing protest was supposed to be – and doing so in a leather jacket with a US flag patch on the left shoulder. Now, reasonably speaking, I think we can all agree that both the cops and the press had some reason to be there. But the US ambassador? Continue reading

Firing your best bullet, and other thoughts on rare earth mania.

A brief list of commodities of which China is a net importer: oil, iron ore, soy beans, wheat, corn, aluminum scrap metal, copper scrap metal, steel scrap metal, recyclable paper stock. That is to say, China lacks sufficient domestic supplies of these resources, and must resort to other countries for supply. Among the leading suppliers of food commodities and scrap metals (which comprise a significant percentage of China’s total production of aluminum and copper and, to a lesser but still important extent, steel) is the United States. Indeed, as China’s economy grows, it’s dependence upon the United States and other exporters for commodities, especially for food and metal (and ores) increases. Below, a chart from the United States Department of Agriculture’s Shanghai Trade office.

Quite often, and understandably, my friends in the China-focused media and academic class tend to lose themselves in the same story and theme. For years, for example, the China-focused media has been tightly focused on the Chinese export story, while giving short shrift to the still considerable volume of exports – especially the commodities that power the Chinese export machine – that the United States and other developed countries send to China. To be sure, the trade deficit between China and the United States grows, but US to China trade also grows, and it’s worth remembering – if the stories about American job losses often don’t – that China is the third largest US export market. And it’s also worth remembering that commodities – agricultural and recyclable – are the two leading US exports to China, by volume. Continue reading

One reason [some US space personnel] won’t collaborate with China on space exploration.

[See Update 2, below for a brief explanation of why I've changed the title of this post from 'One reason the US won't collaborate with China on space exploration,' to its current version.]

I’m a big fan of China’s space program (any space program, really) and nobody cheers louder when it pulls off successful missions. So, needless to say, I was thrilled to learn that China had launched its second lunar probe, Chang’e II, over the weekend. But my excitement was quickly tempered by photos of Chinese farmland littered with solid rocket booster debris that rained down in the aftermath of the launch (image from 163.com via shanghaiist).

Now, I’m no rocket scientist, but I am a space buff – and like any space buff worth his salt, I know that – barring an accident – solid rocket boosters don’t just accidentally fall onto populated areas. Mission designers can predict with certainty where these things fall – thus, NASA’s ability to retrieve the space shuttle’s solid rocket boosters. In any case, this morning I received an email from an acquaintance who has worked with NASA in the past. With his permission, I quote (anonymously):

[O]ne of two problems here. Either the rocket boosters didn’t burn up in the atmosphere as designed (failure of design) or the mission planners didn’t give a s*** if they landed in a populated area. If the first then you’ve got a program that isn’t capable of something that the US program figured out decades ago. If the second then you’ve got a program that’s willing to sacrifice civilian lives to send up a probe. Either way you’ve got a program that the US can’t work with forgetting even that nat’l security is an issue.

As an addendum, I think it’s worth pointing out that, in the past, the Chinese have launched US satellites from the same facility as Chang’e II, and that one of those launches – in 1996 – resulted in the destruction of large swaths of Xichang. That incident and others that place civilians at risk are among the reasons that the Chinese are building a new launch facility on Hainan Island. Presumably, once operational, that facility’s debris will fall into the ocean.

[UPDATE: In the comments, below, Sean - a frequent commentator - notes:

They do evacuate parts of three provinces that are in the range of the falling rocket boosters and satellite debris. Parts of Guizhou, Sichuan and Jiangxi are where the debris is expected to fall, and in Guizhou alone, around 200 thousand people are evacuated.]

[UPDATE 2: I've received a couple of emails from people suggesting that these sorts of incidents aren't, in fact, the basis for any sort of US gov't space policy. That's true, and I concede that the original title - "One reason why the US won't collaborate with China on space exploration' - was a bit over-the-top. Thus, I've changed it. The person who emailed me the above comment on the Chang'e 2 booster was writing as a knowledgeable individual who had worked with NASA in the past, and his comment reflected the consensus of some of his colleagues - not the US gov't. My apologies if the original title implied otherwise.]

[UPDATE 3: In a very detailed, very interesting comment (4, below), Tom suggests that the images in question show a payload fairing, and not a rocket booster. I've just emailed the person who sent me the email that set off this post, in the first place, to see if there's a response.]

The Gun Almost Smokes: Two once-secret documents related to the USA Expo 2010 pavilion

Over the next two days, representatives of the USA pavilion for Expo 2010 (ie, the 2010 World’s Fair) will be rolling-out the USA’s building and programming for the event, to open May 1. Tomorrow, Tuesday, media will have the opportunity to interview members of BRC Imagination Arts, the company that produced the “4-D” film to be shown inside of the pavilion. And on Wednesday, the pavilion and the film will be presented to invited media at noon. In addition, Commissioner General Jose Villarreal will submit to a Q & A. I have been invited to attend the Wednesday event, and I plan to report on it at Shanghai Scrap, and elsewhere, in the hours following. This post, I hope, will be of use to the other reporters who will join me on Wednesday, and precede me tomorrow.

As regular readers know, for the last year I’ve written extensively about the travails of the USA pavilion at Expo 2010, beginning with this March 2009 piece in the Atlantic, through more than a dozen blog posts, and a March 2010 piece in Foreign Policy. At the heart of my reporting and critique has been this: the individuals whom the US State Department entrusted – in the words of the Department itself – to “design, instruct, install, and manage a U.S. Government pavilion at the 2010 Shanghai World’s Fair and to raise all funding required for the project” – were chosen in a no-bid non-competitive process that wasn’t open to the public, and which resulted in a woefully un-qualified USA pavilion team that has, over the last two years, caused diplomatic tensions with China, failed at its chartered tasks and – most significantly – built a sub-standard pavilion that won’t necessarily embarrass the United States, but certainly won’t show it in its best light, either.

Alas, the State Department, the Commerce Department, and the individuals associated with Shanghai Expo 2010, Inc., the non-profit serving as the State Department’s designated pavilion, have been reluctant to answer questions about the selection process and have, at various points, lied about it. Nonetheless, perseverance pays off, and last month the State Department, at the request of a concerned citizen, and with the encouragement of Jose Villarreal, the pavilion’s Commissioner General, released several previously secret documents which illuminate previously murky aspects of the USA pavilion selection process. I’m going to use this post to set the context for these documents, present excerpts from them, draw some conclusions, and then – at the end – post them for the use of anyone interested in how the USA wound up with the pavilion that’s going to be presented to the media tomorrow and Wednesday.

So let’s get to it.

Continue reading

US State Department Inspector General Refers Complaint Against USA Pavilion at Expo 2010 to Secretary of State’s Executive Director.

Shanghai Scrap has viewed documents revealing that last week the US Department of State’s Office of Inspector General [OIG] forwarded a request for investigation into the Department’s stewardship of the USA Pavilion at Expo 2010 to the US Secretary of State’s Executive Director. The complaint requests a “full and fair recounting of the events that transpired … in the US Pavilion process over the last three years.” As reported on Shanghai Scrap, both the State Department and the private organization managing the US pavilion, have refused repeated requests to produce documents related to the pavilion selection process, pavilion fund-raising, and the basic rules governing operation of the pavilion (the “action plan”), among other essential details relating to the oft-troubled US pavilion at Expo 2010. The complaint calls for a transparent review of those documents for the purpose of preventing a repeat of the mistakes made in selecting and managing the 2010 pavilion.

Last year, a concerned US citizen filed a Freedom of Information Act [FOIA] request to obtain these documents (including the “action plan” which governs the US pavilion effort). As of January 4, 2010, it has not yet been fulfilled. Continue reading

Lies, Damned Lies, and the US Pavilion at Expo 2010.

Based upon queries of my blog, and queries from US media outlets, it seems that US reporters are finally taking an interest in Expo 2010 and the oft-troubled project to build a US pavilion (Shanghai Scrap reporting on the issue, here). As for the latter topic, the interest is overdue: as of January 4, 2010, the private group authorized by the US State Department to design, fund-raise, and build the US pavilion has not yet finished the fund-raising – despite the fact that the Expo begins in 118 days. In early 2009, the situation was so dire that the Chinese government made high-level appeals to Secretary of State Clinton, who has since undertaken some of the fund-raising herself.

And so, this weekend the New York Times gives us “For Shanghai Fair, a Famous Fund-Raiser Delivers,” in which the authors – Mark Landler and David Barboza – correctly report that Secretary Clinton’s played a crucial role in securing pavilion funding, and thus preventing a major diplomatic rupture with China. At the same time, they document the State Department’s careful vetting of Clinton’s fund-raising role, including its determination that – due to her position – she “could not solicit private donations herself.”

This is a compelling story for those who follow the US pavilion, but it is also a seriously incomplete one – as the reporters who worked on the story surely know. So let’s be clear here: the reason that Clinton had to become involved at all is because the private group authorized to design, build, and fund-raise the pavilion had – by early 2009 – shown themselves to be completely incapable of accomplishing what they’d been authorized to do by the State Department. Continue reading

Obama in Beijing, through a Copenhagen Lens

Last month, in the wake of President Obama’s first visit to China, the White House and its supporters in the commentariat lashed out at reporters - like me! – who had judged the visit a failure on the basis of a lack of tangible accomplishments.  It was suggested that reporters – like me! – who focused on immediate gains simply didn’t understand “how China works,” that negotiations and relationships take time, and that – really – we should all focus on speculating about precisely what happened in closed door meetings that we weren’t invited to attend. This opinion was fleshed out most completely by an un-named White House official whom my friend Jim Fallows interviewed at his Atlantic blog. In it, she tells him:

Discussions with the Chinese just don’t offer dramatic breakthrough moments. It’s water on a stone. They don’t reveal their Eurekas to you. While you’re there you get fairly predictable responses. Next time you go back and get a little different treatment.

Judgments will be borne out over time. Will they cooperate or not on Iran? Will they be spoilers or not on climate change? On North Korea? Rebalancing their economy? None of those is a one-day story. The only fair way of evaluating results will be over time.

I guess it depends on how you define “over time,” but – all things considered – I think we’ve now had enough time – and a UN sponsored summit – to judge whether or not the climate side of the equation benefited from the approach that Obama took in Beijing. Continue reading