Red Lines in the East China Sea

East China Sea[Short version on CNN GPS]

In many parts of the world the long curve of history continues dragging nations back to the brink of war. Take Northeast Asia where recent tensions between China and Japan risk erupting into conflict. The Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, home to rocky outcroppings and resource rich waters nearby has become the latest potential flashpoint.

What started as a manageable confrontation in the East China Sea between Chinese fishing vessels and Japanese Coast Guard cutters has now escalated well beyond natural resources. Chinese fighter jets have shadowed Japanese planes in the skies above. Japan has threatened to fire warning shots. A hawkish Chinese general has warned that would be their only shot while Beijing announced plans to formally survey the islands. The U.S. has weighed in against any unilateral action that challenges Japan’s administration of the area.

If there’s a red line where rhetoric and posturing turns into open conflict (intended or otherwise) we’re close to crossing it.

Neither side shows any signs of compromise with Shinzo Abe back as Japan’s Prime Minister, and Xi Jinping inheriting an increasingly nationalistic country in transition. In a January International Crisis Group report  Stephanie Kleine-Albrandt notes that:

“While neither Beijing nor Tokyo desires a major conflict, their tacit agreement to set aside the dispute has been broken and there is deepening pessimism on both sides over the prospects of a peaceful settlement.”

As Bill Bishop points out in his daily Sinocism report, stepping back from the brink becomes increasingly difficult.

“China’s relentless media campaign since the summer, the anti-Japanese teachings so prevalent in the Chinese education system and the imperative of any new leadership to not look weak, especially toward the Japanese, could mean that if an accident did occur, especially one that resulted in the death of a Chinese citizen, Beijing might have so painted itself into a corner that it would have respond with force…”

The spiral of escalation, once started, can be difficult to unwind including any real shots fired by the increasing number of naval ships (both Chinese and Japanese) now plying the nearby waters or jets flying overhead. Similarly if either side attempts to land on the islands the other side will counter with a landing of their own. Calls for retaliation will be hard, if not impossible, to resist.

Complicating this current territorial flare-up is a centuries old rivalry. An economically emboldened China, with a military budget to match, has begun reasserting itself as a regional power. For centuries it was the trading hub of the region and an imperial power coercing its neighbors into paying annual tribute for peace and security. To be fair, the long arc of Chinese history also includes imperial dynasties that eschewed regional intervention – a fact currently lost on current policymakers.

Schools to this day continuing painting the country as a weak, aggrieved nation. The lesson: China must defend itself against a mythical recurrence of exploitation at the hands of foreign powers. These slights of history dating back to early 1900’s treaty ports (a time of unequal trading relations) are re-lived as if they were yesterday. Yet, the more recent reign of Mao Tse Tung driving the country into devastating famine, financial ruin and global isolation gains barely a footnote.

The cognitive dissonance between present day reality: China as the world’s second largest economy, with one of the world’s largest militaries and more than equal inclusion in the global trading system; and views of a distant, weakened past continue influencing China’s foreign policy. In Japan as well, historical revisionists continue celebrating war criminals at Yasakuni Shrine. The current administration has also contemplated changing its account of the use of sex slaves during World War II.

On a limited but positive note Japan sent, and China received an official delegation to discuss the territorial dispute. Former Japanese Prime Minister Hatoyama visited China’s Nanjing Massacre memorial which marks Imperial Japan’s World War II atrocities. And U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia and the Pacific Kurt Campbell has been making the regional rounds calling for dialogue.

For now at least lines of communication remain open while both sides try to reign in their political extremes. Space for rational discussion, however continues shrinking under the pressure of nationalistic vitriol. If push comes to literal shove the damage to the region and international trade could be devastating.

Conflict has never been pre-ordained. It is the result of decisions, by people, to follow a course into crisis. New histories can and have been forged. Consider the U.S.-Vietnam relationship of today versus forty years ago. Trade has replaced hostilities and Americans travel to tourist destinations in straw hats rather than as soldiers in helmets. The past should not be forgotten, but neither should it be allowed to replay itself in an endless, self-destructive loop. Hopefully that’s not a lesson lost on Beijing and Tokyo in 2013.

Related posts:

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Ten Foreign Policy Priorities for Obama – CNN Commentary

Ten Foreign Policy Priorities for Obama – CNN Commentary

(From CNN GPS – full list here.) Barack Obama has won reelection as America’s president. But while the economy – and avoiding the so-called fiscal cliff – will inevitably take up much of his time, there are numerous foreign policy challenges facing the next administration. GPS asked 10 leading foreign policy analysts to name 10 things that Obama should focus on next. The views expressed are, of course, the authors’ own.

Drop China ambiguity

By Brian Klein

Brian P. Klein is a global strategist and former U.S. diplomat. He blogs at Klein’s Commentary.

China’s economic rise and increasing military assertiveness have pushed U.S. strategic ambiguity to its limits. If a decisive position isn’t taken soon, allies and friendly countries will question whether the U.S. can back up its Asia pivot talk with action. Focusing on realistic trade liberalization, increased military contacts with China and firm engagement rather than the blame and shame tactics of the past must become a priority.

Meanwhile, the once vaunted Arab Spring, so full of promise and democratic zeal, shows signs of entering a long dark winter. Egypt’s President Mohamed Morsy whittles away at reforms in the marginally secular republic, while Syria’s civil war now threatens regional stability, with conflict overflowing into Turkey and Lebanon. Boots on the ground may not be an option, but a focused effort to influence, if not completely resolve these destabilizing trends will be essential to restoring peace.

Is Fox News A National Security Risk? A Benghazi Lessons Update

Is Fox News A National Security Risk? A Benghazi Lessons Update

It was supposed to be a conspiracy of epic proportions. The U.S. government knew about the threats in Benghazi and did nothing, even when pleas for help came from the Consulate. No other major news organization would follow the story. The CIA called for back-up but was told to “stand down”. U.S. government officials said it was a mob action following the release of a third-rate anti-Islam internet movie, and then changed their story. Could it be any clearer? Why wasn’t anyone doing anything about it?

In “The Real Benghazi Lessons” on CNN’s website I wrote about the need to de-politicize this issue and the realities of incomplete information, especially during a crisis. Over 100 comments poured in full of conspiracy theories and anti-Obama screeds. These replies, it turns out, were parroting the very same set of narrow criticisms that Fox News has been broadcasting at increasingly louder volumes in the run-up to election day.

And now the mainstream media swings back with detailed reporting on what actually happened. The Wall Street Journal dove deep into the confusion of the night itself, multiple attacks, a DoD drone brought in to provide real-time pictures (yes, the military did try and help), and squabbling between the State Department and CIA over who was ultimately responsible for security of the main Consulate building.

According to the New York Times the CIA “played a pivotal role in combating militants . . . deploying a rescue party from a secret base in the city, sending reinforcements from Tripoli, and organizing an armed Libyan military convoy to escort the surviving Americans to hastily chartered planes that whisked them out of the country.”

The response occurred within an hour of the reported first attack. Thirty people were successfully evacuated, including support from U.S. military assets. An unnamed official also stated that no one was told to “stand down.”

So why no detailed account until now?

Because so much of what was apparently going on in Benghazi was under the radar and classified. That’s how you fight terrorism and dictatorships, not in the headlines or the fanatical press chasing ratings. The risks to Libya’s fragile democracy, a hallmark of the Arab Spring uprisings, still remain high. Now, thanks to all of this talk of a cover-up U.S. foreign policy operations have been dealt a significant blow. Fox’s unrelenting politicizing of the issue has thrust these operations onto the public stage,  jeopardizing future U.S. government operations in Benghazi and elsewhere.

Are there real concerns over the security at forward operating diplomatic posts? Of course. And Congress is following up on their October showmanship of a hearing with a detailed investigation. They even set a post-election Nov. 8th deadline for a full accounting of what happened (State is also conducting another review according to an article in Foreign Policy.)

Exposing troubling and sometimes illegal U.S. government activity (say in the possible use of torture or the subversion of democracy in Watergate) certainly provides a critical and necessary check on authority. That’s the power of a free press.

This shouldn’t be confused with prime time personalities slinging unsubstantiated conspiracy claims and peddling innuendo as if it were real news. In the end Fox’s irresponsible coverage has generated a politically motivated blame game damaging U.S. national security in the process.

Related posts:

De-Politicizing Benghazi (also on CNN’s GPS as The real Benghazi lessons)

Muslims Didn’t Kill Diplomats in Benghazi

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Despite Global Slowdown, Prosperity on the Rise

Despite Global Slowdown, Prosperity on the Rise

The Legatum Institute, an “independent, non-partisan, public policy organization” based in London came out with their annual Prosperity Index this week. Among the key findings in an analysis of 142 countries around the world: From 2009 to 2012 prosperity* rose in every region despite the global economic downturn. Central Asia and Southeast Asia top the charts with index scores rising approximately half a point followed closely by Sub-Saharan Africa and East Asia. Unsurprisingly the U.S., Asia Pacific (including Japan and South Korea) and Europe round out the bottom. Other findings include:

  • Prosperity may not be growing at the highest rates in North America, Europe and the Asia Pacific writ large, but advanced economies in these regions still dominate the upper echelons of overall rankings  ( 40 out of the top 50).
  • However, the U.S. fell to #12 overall and out of the top ten for the first time with a lackluster showing in Economy (#20) and Safety/Security (#27) sub-indices. Of particular concern “Fewer US citizens agree that working hard results in success.”
  • A country on the move, Indonesia jumped 26 spots since 2009 finishing 63rd overall this year. China finished at #55 with a strong showing on Economy and Social Capital indicators but failed to break into the top category across all other sub-indices with a particularly poor showing in Personal Freedom (#129) and Safety/Security (#101).
  • The largest sub-indice gains were found in Entrepreneurship/Opportunity and Health while Social Capital and Governance barely changed. Safety/Security declined driven by the Arab Spring and high rates of theft and assault in Latin America.
  • Accountable government was seen as a “key stepping stone to prosperity” with the notable exception of India, where corruption concerns continue to grow, falling ten places. Twenty-seven of the top thirty countries in the index are democracies.
  • A strong correlation was also found between tolerance indicators and high overall prosperity rankings. Win won for immigration and integrative social values.

* Prosperity was defined as income and wellbeing which include both numeric data and survey results standardized for statistical comparison. Details on their methodology can be found here and their full press release.

De-Politicizing Benghazi – CNN Commentary

De-Politicizing Benghazi – CNN Commentary

(Also on CNN’s GPS website)

A recently publicized series of State Department email by CNN lays out in harrowing detail the attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi. They are sure to provoke another round of finger-pointing and more politically-motivated pabulum.

At 4:05pm: “The Regional Security Officer reports the mission is under attack. Embassy Tripoli reports approximately 20 armed people fired shots.; explosions have been heard as well.”

Ambassador Stevens and four other personnel, according to the same email, are in the safe haven and the 17th of February Militia is providing security support. Based on this early assessment it appears the situation is under control. Diplomats are safe. Armed entities are defending.

Further reassurance comes at 4:54pm: “Embassy Tripoli reports the firing at the U.S. Diplomatic Mission in Benghazi has stopped and the compound has been cleared. A response team is on site attempting to locate COM personnel.”

Unfortunately all was not under control, the compound was overrun, and Ambassador Stevens died along with three other personnel.

The political spin machine has been busy politicizing this tragedy since its onset. The same Congresspeople that cut State security funding hauled up department officials to berate them on the lack of high security at the Consulate (the same happened after the disastrous 1998 bombing of the U.S Embassy in Nairobi.) In the second Presidential debate Romney berated Obama for taking so long to identify the attack not as an unruly mob but the work of a specific terrorist organization (even though Obama did characterize the attack as a terrorist act shortly after events unfolded).

In another email released by CNN Ansar Al-Sharia claimed responsibility on Facebook and Twitter. Aha, go the conspiracy theorists, proof the administration knew but didn’t say anything for weeks. But no, that doesn’t prove a thing.

On any given day in the complex world of threat analysis people and groups make all kinds of claims. It isn’t as if terrorists are holding a press conference for the world’s media to ask questions. Individual bits of information are simply that. Single puzzle pieces that tell very little about the full picture of what happened until amassed and reconstructed.  Details must be verified, cross-checked and analyzed before informed assertions are made.

This very small selection of email give the impression of control but information at the beginning of any crisis is often hard to come by and spotty at best. No single account could immediately identify a specific attacker. Even establishing the facts of a traffic accident requires a police report and potential review by a judge or jury. It’s a process. An armed assault on a U.S. diplomatic mission, thousands of miles away, in a far flung province recently freed of civil war creates an infinitely more complicated undertaking. It requires, it demands time to assess and judge.

There are ways to address the serious issues involved in the loss of our diplomatic personnel. Inquiries can and should be made. Did the rush to set up a presence in Benghazi trump normal security procedures? Why was a rosy picture being portrayed of a post-uprising Libya when in fact serious threats remained. How critical was it to set up a new consulate in the first place?

Using the attack in Benghazi as fodder for more November electioneering, however serves only the short-term interests of those who benefit by not giving the security of our diplomatic missions the thorough review (and funding) it requires. This does nothing to ensure the future security of our diplomatic personnel. They deserve better.

Post-Debate Wrap-Up: The Candidates on Asia

Post-Debate Wrap-Up: The Candidates on Asia

The final 2012 U.S. Presidential Debate went off without a hitch last night as both candidates stuck closely to their foreign policy talking points. China was meant to feature prominently with time devoted explicitly to the bilateral relationship. After brief opening remarks both Obama and Romney veered off topic and returned to the jobs question, a perennial favorite whenever China comes up.

What we know of the candidates’ positions from last night’s sometimes testy exchange paint a picture of a complicated U.S. relationship with the world’s second largest economy. These include concerns over the loss of domestic manufacturing, rule of law and growing military strength balanced against commercial opportunities half a world away (see full transcript starting with the China question here.)

Romney came out swinging with the now somewhat antiquated claim that China is a currency manipulator. In his own words:

“We’ll also make sure that we have trade relations with China that work for us. I’ve watched year in and year out as companies have shut down and people have lost their jobs because China has not played by the same rules, in part by holding down artificially the value of their currency. It holds down the prices of their goods. It means our goods aren’t as competitive and we lose jobs. That’s got to end.

They’re making some progress; they need to make more. That’s why on day one, i will label them a currency manipulator, which allows us to apply tariffs where they’re taking jobs. They’re stealing our intellectual property, our patents, our designs, our technology, hacking into our computers, counterfeiting our goods.

They have to understand we want to trade with them. We want a world that’s stable. We like free enterprise, but you got to play by the rules.”

Technical issues aside (as the Treasury Department has ruled against that legally very specific manipulator charge in the past), inexpensive Chinese manufactured goods are the result of low cost labor, economies of scale and exchange rates.

No matter what happens the jobs lost to China (and many other countries including Mexico, Turkey, India, and Bangladesh), including low-end garment production, household goods, and assembly work won’t be returning. If Chinese products became more expensive production would shift to other low-wage countries. Check the labels the next time you go shopping and you might be surprised where clothing is manufactured these days.

Even if Romney as President labeled China a currency manipulator, the remedy includes tariffs against Chinese goods. As the moderator Bob Scheiffer accurately pointed out, that would risk a trade war with China. Romney replied that China exports more to the U.S. than the other way around so they have more to lose. This simplistic version of trade does not reflect the realities of international commerce.

Sudden tariff increases would be a particularly reckless course of action which does absolutely nothing to solve the core problems facing U.S. labor, namely better paying U.S. jobs. The effects of punitive action would wreak havoc with trade on both sides of the Pacific and the intricately linked global supply chain.

China’s currency has also been appreciating over the past several years and labor costs are rising as well. Romney’s missive, along with the ear-catching phrase that they “must play by rules” which Obama also reiterated, did little to address real trade frictions like further opening of Chinese markets to U.S. goods, greater Chinese enforcement of intellectual property rights protection, and cracking down on counterfeits entering the U.S. That’s more of what we needed from both candidates.

Obama countered with his own “get tough” strategy including an increasing number of WTO cases levied against China (most of which are won by the U.S.) that did give temporary advantage to U.S. manufacturers of tires and steel. Both industries, however are slow growth and lacking in innovative strategies to remain globally competitive.

Clear examples and real world solutions were needed, only the solutions part was sorely lacking.

On the security front there was precious little mentioned about China’s rise, the U.S. pivot to Asia, tensions in the South China Sea, North Korea, or recent China-Japan disputes. Obama did say:

“We believe China can be a partner, but we’re also sending a very clear signal that America is a Pacific power; that we are going to have a presence there. We are working with countries in the region to make sure, for example, that ships can pass through; that commerce continues. And we’re organizing trade relations with countries other than China so that China starts feeling more pressure about meeting basic international standards.”

And then the conversation veered off into Detroit autos and cuts to education. There was no grand U.S. policy towards Asia offered by or asked of the candidates.

For the most part U.S. voters aren’t even that concerned about U.S. foreign policy when it comes to picking the president. What they want to see is a candidate capable of securing the country against threats, decisiveness and calmness under pressure. The real concern remains jobs, jobs, and then jobs. That’s why the debate consistently put foreign policy back into the domestic context.

All the candidates really needed to do was get in a few good verbal punches here and there and stay off the ropes. That’s what the debate delivered, but little else.

 

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U.S. Presidential Debate – A Foreign Policy Primer

U.S. Presidential Debate – A Foreign Policy Primer

With two weeks left before election day candidates Obama and Romney tackle foreign policy issues tonight. If last week’s battle royale over the economy is any indication this promises to be a no-holds-barred verbal slug fest. Tremendous changes have occurred over the last four years in the Middle East, Europe and Asia. Osama Bin Laden is dead, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are over. Dictators have fallen from decades in power. China continues to rise.

Still, the global economy has yet to fully recover with Europe teetering on the edge of recession and Japan mired in stagnant economic waters. Middle East political movements struggle to sustain new democracies and China’s economic and military advances raise questions about Asia’s future balance of power.

Here’s a primer on some of the big issues likely to be addressed and a few questions that need to be asked. The debate begins at 9:00pm EST.

Middle East

Since Obama took office four years ago a surprise Arab Spring swept across the region. Libya, Egypt, and Yemen saw leadership changes brought about by popular uprisings. Syria is still mired in its own civil war with little hope of quick resolution. While nascent democracies sprung up after the overthrow of decades of dictatorships serious questions remain about their stability and policies going forward.

For now the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt holds a tentative control with the military watching from behind the scenes for any signs of the nominally secular government turning into an Islamist stronghold. Libya meanwhile struggles with establishing a strong central government as events in Benghazi, where the U.S. Consulate was destroyed and diplomats killed by a terrorist attack, demonstrate.

In Iran a nuclear standoff continues with enrichment activities racing ahead and Israel threatening attack (though as sanctions take a deeper bit out of the Iranian economy Israeli President Netanyahu has eased off the war rhetoric).

The U.S. military withdrawal from Afghanistan marks the end of major U.S. operations in the region, closing a decade-long period of intervention initiated by the former Bush administration. The Afghanistan government still struggles with providing basic services to its people and countering threats of Taliban violence.

What will Obama or Romney do to further promote democracy in the Middle East without inflaming anti-U.S. sentiment? How can Iran’s nuclear ambitions be eliminated? Is Afghanistan going to slip into chaos once U.S. troops leave?

Asia

China’s inexorable rise gathered speed since January 2009. It completed construction on its first aircraft carrier, became the world’s second largest economy, and has survived the worst of the global economic meltdown with one of the world’s best growth rates. U.S. economic ties with China remains strong which has helped keep domestic inflation low.

Potential flare-ups, however in the South China Sea (with neighbors Vietnam and the Philippines) and East China Sea (with Japan) linger behind the facade of China’s “peaceful rise”. A once in a decade political transition is also underway with China’s new leaders expected to be officially acknowledged on November 8th and installed in March, 2013. Trade frictions are on the rise with increased WTO cases on goods ranging from tires to solar panels. The economy has slowed considerably from the unsustainable double-digit sprint of years past. Some economist predict much tougher times ahead as China’s new leadership faces a country in transition unlike any other time in recent history.

North Korea too has changed since Obama first took office. A young and relatively untested new leader, Kim Jong-Eun rose to power seizing every major military, political and governmental role in quick succession since his father’s passing. In one of the world’s most isolated regimes the family political dynasty remains intact. Hopes for significant economic liberalization have so far failed to materialize and tensions persistent on the world’s last Cold War front.

What does China’s rise mean for U.S. security and economic growth? Is China’s strategic intent to replace the U.S. as main regional influence and what will the U.S. do about it? What will you do as President to reduce tensions on the Korean peninsula and end the decades-long hostilities between North and South Korea?

Europe

Germany, the powerhouse of the continent, has lowered growth forecasts to a barely treading above water 1% for 2012. Most were hoping that the manufacturing giant could sustain strong growth against the headwinds of Spanish, Greek, and Portuguese recession along with a lackluster UK and newly integrated eastern European economies.  As the world’s engines of growth stall one-by-one, the threats of a larger global recession increase, as the IMF has warned with increasing regularity.

How will the European slowdown affect the U.S. economy and can the U.S. avert even more economic troubles if Europe stalls?

Terrorism

Attacks on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi and a recently thwarted attempt in Jordan in addition to continued fronts in Yemen and now Mali show that the treats of terrorism have not abated. As long as arms continue to flow into the hands of radical groups and weak or failed states remain the threat of violence will continue. Concerted and sustained action can, however minimize the depths of the threat and seriously disrupt organizations bent on destruction.

What can and should the U.S. do to further combat terrorist organizations? Is the Al-Qaeda threat still a focal point of U.S. foreign policy?

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The Fundamentalists’ Last Stand

The Fundamentalists’ Last Stand

In Swat, Pakistan three children were attacked including Malala Yousafzai, a 14 year old awarded for promoting girl’s education. She was taken off her school bus by an armed Taliban militant and shot in the head (as of this writing she is reportedly in stable condition.)

After years of acquiescence towards radicalized militant groups, the shooting of a child appears to be finally galvanizing public opinion in Pakistan, a country with a rich history of tolerance.

The BBC’s M Ilyas Khan notes:

“The attempt on Malala Yousafzai’s life has shocked and angered the nation, and reports from parliament suggest a wider anti-Taliban consensus might be in the works – something Pakistan’s fractious politicians have rarely achieved before.”

Richard Leiby reports in The Washington Post:

“The world image of Pakistan is, to put it mildly, not very good,” said Ijaz Khattak, a professor at the University of Peshawar who knows Yousafzai and her father, an educator and peace activist in Swat. “Society is seen as increasingly sympathetic to these terrorists. What this incident can prove to be is a catalyst, because the outrage can turn the tide against the religious fundamentalism.”

Moderate Pakistani Muslims are not alone. The terrorist attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya killed four including  Ambassador Stevens, a highly regarded official active in supporting the new Libyan government. Within days thousands demonstrated in support of secular Libya and against the attackers. In contrast to the riots elsewhere about an amateur video criticizing Islam the crowds of Benghazi descended on militia headquarters driving them out of the area.

Extremists in the Middle East have had a litany of excuses for their terrorist ideology. For decades U.S. support of regional dictators including Egypt’s Mubarak and for a time Iraq’s Hussein (when fighting against Iran) gave radical groups easy ideological ammunition. Now that the Arab Spring’s indigenous revolutions toppled these regimes fundamentalists have lost yet another rallying cry.

Malala Yousafzai, who is still struggling for her life in a Pakistani military hospital, may never be able to return to her home because of the continued threat of violence. Taliban militants apparently stated that if Malala lives they will attack again until they kill her.

The day she is free to live anywhere, study anything and say whatever is on her mind without fear marks the day fundamentalists have lost in Pakistan. That day may be coming sooner than some expect.

In the end, only moderate majority populations, galvanized by these acts of terror into a groundswell of popular outrage and action can make these attacks the fundamentalist’s final failed stand.

 

Photos: (Top) Inter Services Public Relations Department. (Bottom) Malala awarded Pakistan’s first Youth Peace Award. Pakistani Press Information Department.

If China Televised a Presidential Debate

If China Televised a Presidential Debate

(Sometime in the future . . .)

Moderator, internationally-renowned artist Ai Weiwei: Thank you all for coming to the National Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Beijing for this first ever, internationally televised CCTV – China Presidential Debate. There will be no opening remarks, only questions submitted by Weibo users whose names will be concealed. Our first question comes from a real estate developer.

What do the candidates believe the role of government should be in the economy?

Candidate on the left podium – The government should have more state control, more direction over the economy and more of a focus on the poor. State-owned enterprises stabilize the country. My opponent believes the free market and western economic ideals should be slavishly followed. I believe China should follow its own development path and bring back the ideals of our founding father.

(We hear mild applause. Several in the audience are holding pictures of Mao and waving small Chinese flags.)

Candidate on the right podium – The government should facilitate greater reform and opening. That is how China will take its rightful place as a global economic and political leader in the 21st century. Private enterprise will drive future growth in leading industries. Government can and must enforce the rule of law to create a positive environment for business to flourish. Corruption must be stamped out. Consumers, not elites should drive growth.

(More applause, a little louder and longer than the first.)

Second question comes from a graduate student at the China Foreign Affairs University.

China was invaded many times in the past. Now we are a strong country. Why shouldn’t we take back what is rightfully ours including Taiwan, the South China Sea and the Diaoyu islands?

Candidate (on the left): China is a strong nation and will defend its national interests wherever they may lie.

Candidate (on the right): China is a strong nation and will defend its national interests wherever they may lie. Let me add that we believe in a peaceful rise.

Okay. Our third and final question, well more of a comment and a question, comes from a factory worker in Guangdong.

My husband and I both work 10-12 hours a day, 7 days a week at a Chinese-owned factory. The owner often doesn’t pay the overtime we are promised, even after we’ve paid the manager to get the extra hours. Many of my co-workers have gotten ill from the chemicals we use to clean computer screens. The company said they would pay for medical costs but the local hospital insist on cash. If we want to see the actual doctor we have to pay more. Even with receipts we never get reimbursed. I went to complain to the union. The union boss told the factory manager and now I’ve lost all of my overtime and have to work the overnight shift.

Since I do not have a residency permit my daughter can’t attend school here. She lives 200 kilometers away with my parents. Local officials took their land. Now they live in a small apartment in a new building many miles away that is already falling apart. The money they received wasn’t enough for the apartment so they had to use up all of their savings. While we earn more than we used to both of our salaries barely pay our parent’s doctor bills (they have no insurance), my daughter’s school fees (even though she goes to a public school) and our company housing and food. I do not feel better off than I did ten years ago. What are you going to do about it?

(Large thunderous applause fills the auditorium.)

The microphones are suddenly cut and the candidates whisked off stage. Ai Weiwei pulls out his own bullhorn just as television screens across the country go black. A few seconds later images of fireworks appear from the 2008 Summer Olympic Games.

The Presidential Debate We Needed, but Never Saw

The Presidential Debate We Needed, but Never Saw

One question for the undecided voters of America – are you better off now than you were 90 minutes ago?

Despite a Romney landslide 67% “win” among CNN debate watchers and pundits parsing the candidates words in excruciating detail (worse than the actual number-laded debate itself), undecided voters remained decidedly, undecided.

What voters needed from the debate, a clear idea of the candidates’ plans for American renewal, remained lost in the thicket of questionable facts, long-winded replies, and tired rhetoric.

The debates did little to address the most pressing issues facing the U.S. economy. What can government actually do, in the short-term, to help increase employment, get the deficit under control, and ensure the social safety remains intact.

There was no clear vision for America, no soaring oratory, no sense of mission or purpose. Just two men, talking past each other through volleys of competing accounts of their opponents’ views and saccharine human touch stories. Remember the Denver woman with child in hand whose husband hasn’t had a full-time job in years? Or was it a man in (insert name of swing state here) who lost his insurance coverage and can’t get the operation he needs?

What seemed to get the most rise out of Colorado undecideds were phrases like “stop shipping jobs to China” and discussions on the importance of education. Old wine, new bottles.

How much do the candidates’ facts even matter? Probably not as much as we’d like to believe. Who is going to remember whether the Romney plan (with or without details) will actually add $5 trillion to the deficit. Did green energy companies really receive $80 billion in tax breaks and oil companies only a few billion? How many licks does it take to get to the center of that tootsie pop … no one really cares.

The fact checking cycle will run for the next few days and when the October truths come out they’ll be forgotten by November 6th. One zinger worth holding onto — Romney loves Big Bird, but won’t use taxpayer money to fund PBS.

Moving on to the next debate a youthful Paul Ryan faces off against the seasoned and outspoken Vice President Biden. In this match-up will an elder statesman school his less experienced upstart or does a Gen X politician goad the VP into saying something outlandish and damaging to the Obama campaign? It’s reality television on sedatives.

For the most expensive election in U.S. history one would have expected a better show. Maybe in the third and last debate the gloves will finally come off and we’ll get to see a real battle of ideas that make a difference.