Category Archives: Connections

WSJ Journalist Bounced from China and Why It Matters

The Washington Post reported today China denied the visa renewal for Chun Han Wong, a Wall Street Journal reporter. The action came after Wong helped write a report on allegations the cousin of Chinese president Xi Jinping was involved in gambling and potential money laundering in Australia.

As the Post pointed out in the past the Chinese government has retaliated against foreign journalists through the visa process for stories that discussed the private lives and wealth of the families of the country’s ruling elite.

A 2012 Bloomberg News investigative report disclosing the Xi family’s investments resulted in a visa ban for the news agency that was only lifted after extensive discussions between Bloomberg executives and Chinese officials.

At least half a dozen correspondents for the New York Times faced lengthy delays receiving new visas or were expelled outright after the Times published a similar expose that year about former Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao’s family wealth.

Why is this important?

Basically without independent reporting from China the global public would have little information about what is going on in that country. We would not know the economic and social pressures that are at play in the world’s second largest economy and up and coming military power.

And that is what dictators like the Communist Party leadership in China want. They don’t want information about the cracks and flaws in their society. They are especially afraid of the Chinese people learning about  see the lavish lifestyle they lead.

Traditionally the big fear is an outraged farmer class. In the past the governments of China have tolerated a lot of push back from farmers because of their large numbers.The party’s biggest fear is that these farmers would see how well the leadership is living and compare it to the bone-crushing poverty the rural class faced.

Now, however, there is a growing middle class and these folks want to see continued growth. They are also more educated. So they know corruption impedes economic growth. So it is this danger the party leadership faces. They do not want the rising middle class to know just how much wealth the leaders have. Or how they give unfair advantage to their family members.

So for the party leadership their very survival depends on controlling the press and keeping their dirty laundry hidden. And that is why journalists who do what journalists do — finding and reporting on facts — are such a danger to the Chinese government.

The rest of the world needs to know this information because we have to live in a world where China is a major player. Whether it is economics or military, China has a role. And we need to know if they are playing fair or if they are cheating. (And then take appropriate steps.)

Knowing about a government leader’s family connections to wealth and possible criminal activity is a vital part of knowing how to deal with that leader.

And that is what a free press is all about.

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Filed under Censorship, China, Connections, Corruption, Freedom of Information, Harassment, International News Coverage, Press Freedom

Why foreign assistance is important to US economy

Too many Americans are just plain wrong when it comes to foreign aid.

In January 2016 a Kaiser Foundation survey showed that 15 percent of the American people believe the foreign aid budget represents more than half of the U.S. federal budget.  The average answer from the survey was that the US spend 31 percent of its budget on foreign aid. Only 3 percent had the right answer: 1-1.5 percent.

 

And now the Trump Administration wants to cut the aid program (and the rest of civilian foreign policy operations) by a third.

Contrary to the attitude that seems to come from the administration and its supporters, the purpose of foreign aid is not to just give away money to make us feel better. In fact, foreign aid is an important factor in improving the U.S. economy.

When poor people in another country start earning more money, they most often use the money to improve the lives of their children by investing in education and health. And once those basic cares are covered, these people then start buying things.

If the country has a free-trade agreement with the United States, that means U.S. products can enter the country with low or no import fees. And that means the U.S. products can be purchased by the emerging middle class.

Helping build a strong middle class in the developing world is part of what development aid is all about. One of the most visible programs in the US Agency for International Development universe is Feed the Future.

I have seen the program in action in Honduras.

Farmers who barely able to grow enough to feed their families were able improve their agricultural output under the Feed the Future program. I saw farmers install healthy stoves — designed to expel the smoke outside the house. The extra income was also used to improve the diets of the families, thereby making the children healthier and better able to learn. And the extra money was also used to educate the children so they can find better paying work when they graduate.

For less than a penny on the dollar, tens of thousands of people in Honduras were brought out of severe poverty — about $1 a day. The lives of these people was improved and their children were given opportunities to improve their future.

And this affects the U.S. how?

By giving young people a viable future, U.S. aid programs keeps them away from gangs — in particular the major syndicates that help move drugs into the United States. Also, by improving the local country’s economy, there are fewer reasons for young people to leave their country for the United States.

And to be clear, Feed the Future is not only for farmers. It works with people who have an idea for a company but who aren’t sure how to proceed.

Norma Linares owns Loma Alta, a thriving food processing enterprise that she and her husband founded in 2014 in their village of Azacualpa, Honduras. The husband and wife team turned about 300 plantains per month into chips, which they sold to local retail outlets. Home-based and family-run, the business started small, generating a net income of around $75 a month.

Soon after Loma Alta’s founding, Linares and her husband started working with a Feed the Future project, where they were introduced to a wide range of training and technical assistance to improve processing efficiency, quality control, and packaging in their business. Feed the Future also helped Loma Alta establish ties with market contacts, giving it year-round access to reliable buyers and a more steady income throughout the year.

Opportunities Sprout from Growing Plantain Business

Eventually the company expanded into other packaged foods and changed from a solely family business to one that hires people to package and sell their goods.

In just a few years this family moved firmly into the middle class in Honduras. And that means they will be able to buy U.S. products. It also means they will be staying in Honduras rather than making the dangerous journey to the U.S. to look for economic opportunities.

For about one cent on the dollar USAID (and the State Department) provide programs and assistance that helps build the economies of other countries, which in turn means more markets for U.S. goods AND reduced immigration.

So what is the more wasteful program: Building a wall and militarizing a border or providing assistance to people to work their way out of poverty?

Common sense says it is clearly the latter.

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Filed under Central America, Connections, Development, Story Ideas

Migrants: Where to and where from

If you ever wondered why there is a better selection of tortillas in your local store or why getting good garam masala is suddenly much easier, the Pew Research Group has a quick way to look at immigration and emigration.

The Pew Group has a GREAT interactive graphic to look at immigrant and emigrant movements during the past 25 years at Origins and Destinations of the World’s Migrants, from 1990-2015

Along with an interactive map, the Pew Group added a table so you can see with real numbers migration movement.

I’ll let the Pew Group explain what its wonderful graphic depicts:

The figures in this interactive feature refer to the total number (or cumulative “stocks”) of migrants living around the world as of 1990, 2000, 2010 or 2015 rather than to the annual rate of migration (or current “flows”) in a given year. Since migrants have both an origin and a destination, international migrants can be viewed from two directions – as an emigrant (leaving an origin country) or as an immigrant (entering a destination country).

According to the United Nations Population Division, an international migrant is someone who has been living for one year or longer in a country other than the one in which he or she was born. This means that many foreign workers and international students are counted as migrants. Additionally, the UN considers refugees and, in some cases, their descendants (such as Palestinians born in refugee camps outside of the Palestinian territories) to be international migrants. For the purposes of this interactive feature, estimates of the number of unauthorized immigrants living in various countries also are included in the total counts. On the other hand, tourists, foreign-aid workers, temporary workers employed abroad for less than a year and overseas military personnel typically are not counted as migrants.

And for those wondering, the total number of migrants living in the United States in 2015 came from:

  1. Mexico – 12 million
  2. China – 2.1 million
  3. India – 1.9 million
  4. Philippines – 1.7 million
  5. Puerto Rico – 1.7 million
  6. Viet Nam – 1.3 million
  7. El Salvador – 1.2 million
  8. Cuba – 1.1 million
  9. South Korea – 1.1 million
  10. Dominican Republic – 940,000
  11. Guatemala – 880,000

Remember, this is the TOTAL number of people from these countries living in the United States, NOT the number arriving in 2015. And I would personally put the migration from Puerto Rico to the U.S. mainland as internal migration rather than international. (That is why I have a Top 11, rather than Top 10). Seems the United Nations has its own way of looking at these things.

And in case you are wondering, in 2015 there were 180,000 people from Iraqi living in the United States and 70,000 from Syria, both up from 40,000 each in 1990.

Local reporters can follow-up on this information for a local angle by using material from the U.S. Census Bureau.

For example, I know from the American FactFinder, there are a lot of Ethiopian restaurants in Fairfax County, Virginia (population 1.1 million) because Ethiopian immigrants are the largest African group in Fairfax – 6,000 out of 31,000 African native-born residents.

You can get good papusas because Salvadorans make up the largest single group of Latin American residents — 32,000 out of 102,000 from Latin America.

We all know Annandale, Va., is known as Little Seoul. Well, the Census numbers bear that out, of the 170,000 people born in Asia in Fairfax County, 30,000 are from Korea. But what should be evident to anyone paying attention, the Indian and Vietnamese presence is also big. Fairfax has 29,000 people who were born in Indian and 23,000 born in Vietnam.

Not to leave out Europe, but let’s face it, the numbers are weak compared to the rest of the world. Fairfax has 25,000 people born in Europe. The single largest group are the Germans with 3,600.

Bottom line, if you are looking for a foreign story, start in your own neighborhood.

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Filed under Connections, Immigration, Story Ideas

Economic Stability Needs Free Press

Despite all the complaints about how poorly “the media” covered the Wall Street shenanigans that led to the 2008 Great Recession, people still turn to the unfettered and independent media outlets for news about stocks, bonds and the general state of the economy. In fact, the whole system of savings and investment would not work without a free press.wall_street_after_dark

The media — and this includes knowledgable bloggers — provide the public with loads of information about what is going on in the marketplace. They look at government regulations, company news and the overall status of the market.

One of the reasons there is global support for the U.S. stock markets is because there is such a strong tradition of free and unfettered media. (And perhaps, part of the trauma of the 2008 collapse was because how poorly the market was covered at the time.)

In fact, one of the most important part of any successful stock market is a free press that is allowed to dig into company records and government actions. Look at London, Paris, Tokyo and even Hong Kong.87502278_shanghai12

So is it any wonder there are uprisings and complaints about how things are going in the Chinese stock markets?

China Digital Times summarized a series of articles of how people across China are complaining about their losses in Chinese investment instruments.

According to the [Wall Street] Journal, some 1.6 million investors lost a total of at least $24.3 billion to collapsing wealth-management products over the past year. Many say they invested because of the perceived endorsement of government officials and state media, and are now demanding reimbursement from authorities.

Rather than move to make sure people got the best and most accurate information about where and how to invest their money, the Chinese government, instead, has decided to restrict even more information.

A series of leaked media directives published by CDT further illustrates efforts to manage discontent. Trying to steer a course between inciting panic and stoking further exuberance in June, the State Administration of Press, Publication, Film, Radio and Television told broadcasters not to “join the chorus of the bull or bear market. Rationally lead market expectations to prevent inappropriate reports from causing the market to spike or crash. […] Do not conduct in-depth analysis, and do not speculate on or assess the direction of the market. Do not exaggerate panic or sadness. Do not use emotionally charged words such as ‘slump,’ ‘spike,’ or ‘collapse.’”

Additional directives instruct editors to focus on “illustrative examples of steady growth,” while downplaying or holding back on anything negative about the property and stock markets.

Wall Street Journal reporter Laurie Burkitt retweeted one of the best reactions to the Chinese government actions:

And yet, the government continues to see it self as the main actor.

Why does this matter to journalists or even the people in the United States?
A great misunderstanding of how the Chinese markets work led to a global run on markets. And yet, only after the Western markets started falling because of what was happening in China, did people start figuring out the fall was an overreaction.

There is not enough foreign investment in the Chinese market for it to be a major problem. The London consultancy Capital Economics has said foreigners own just 2% of shares. — BBC  1/7/16

The smoke and mirrors situation in China built up by the ruling elite created a situation where otherwise strong Western investment instruments collapsed in just a matter of days. To be true, the collapse of the Chinese stock markets did indicate the Chinese economy was slowing. But again, had there been better reporting in China — that is had the government NOT restricted what reporters can cover — then the news about the slowing Chinese economy would not have come as such a shock.

The anti-free press fixation of the Chinese government is not just morally wrong, but it clearly also has a direct impact on U.S. investors, including a lot of retirement funds.4aa104a2bd6e75a39c9db8dad7319dbb

By the way, this has all happened before.

Back in the early 1990’s — when I lived in Shanghai — the government opened stock markets in Shanghai and Shenzhen. The party and government leaders encouraged people to invest. The people, figuring that the government has always taken care of them in the past will guarantee they will be taken care of in the future.

When the market collapsed in early 1992, millions of people lost their life savings. Men and women in their 60s discovered they had to now work many more years and save a lot more of their earnings to prevent starvation in their old age.

At that time the government did not step in to make good the losses. Deng Xiaoping was effectively in charge and forbade any bailouts. (Except for key companies, of course.) He made it clear the people will have to learn about the ups and downs of a marketplace economy with Chinese characteristics. He even allowed for and encourages small private companies to be set up.

The new leadership, however, has seem hell-bent to restore the all-pervasive nature of the Communist Party in Chinese society. They have apparently become nervous about the growing middle class. Seems once people get a taste of economic freedom, they tend to want political and social freedom as well. And that is not allowed.il_570xn-628619991_jc8m

So the government stepped up it campaign to crush freedom of speech and expression — including reminding the media their job is to represent the party — and stepped up its campaign of the government being mother and father.

The Chinese leadership claims they are concerned with preserving stability and avoiding social unrest. Yet the keep taking steps that lead to more social unrest.

By restricting the media to being only mouthpieces of the government, people will turn to rumors and whispering campaigns for information. And, as anyone who has played the “telephone game” will know, what goes in at the start is not necessarily what comes out the other end.

 

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Filed under Censorship, China, Connections, Freedom of Information, International News Coverage, Press Freedom

What coverage of a Michigan town can teach us about international coverage

Hamtramck, Mich., was one of three major centers of Polish Americans, Chicago and Buffalo, NY., being the other two.

The small city is completely surrounded by Detroit. And like Detroit fell on hard times when the auto industry started moving out of the area in search of cheap Southern US labor and then shrinking after a series of bad economic decisions by the auto executives.

The town was famous for its Polish food places with delis and bakeries getting customers from all over the region.

I know all this because Hamtramck is a part of my family’s history. Even now, whenever I visit Michigan I often stop by a bakery or two to pick up some items for my mother, who can no longer make her regular trips to the place.

A few folks I know expressed shock that Hamtramck has changed. Seems over the past few years more Muslims have moved in the area. I saw it several years ago when on one side of a street were all Polish shops and on the other were halal shops and offices with names common to the Islamic world. (I did not know where the immigrants came from, but I knew it wasn’t Poland. I later learned Bangladesh and Somalia were the main sources for the newest immigrants.)

As a population changes so does its political center. Last year the city council changed to having a Muslim majority. And, as expected, loads of people started freaking out that Sharia law was coming to Michigan.

Well, of course, no such thing has happened or will happen.

To begin with, Hamtramck is under state control. Yep, the state took over the operations of the city under the emergency control law Gov. Snyder used to run Flint and Detroit.

So even if the Muslim majority council wanted to impose Sharia law — which they don’t — it would never pass by the emergency manager.

Needless to say the change in the political powers in Hamtramck from Polish Catholic to Muslim got the press interested. The Washington Post, CNN and Voice of America all did pieces on the shift.

A recent piece by Michael Jackman for the Detroit Metro Times started out criticizing “national media” coverage of the change. (How international news media tried to find conflict in Hamtramck’s new city council — and missed it entirely)

Jackman opening paragraphs describe how “national news media” reps were peppering the Muslim members about Sharia law.

The Muslim councilman is telling the interviewer emphatically that “Sharia Law” won’t be a factor in politics. The interviewer changes his tack: how about in their own lives? Doesn’t Sharia Law enter into the day-to-day life of the community? The interviewer almost pleads, “In daily matters, outside of politics, do you ever say, ‘This doesn’t conform to Sharia Law?'” The interviewee is too clever for this trap.

For my money, it would have been nice if we knew what national media outlet was asking these questions. To be honest they sound more like the type of thing and the way Bill O’Reilly correspondents would ask, rather than any serious journalistic operation.

The rest of the article is a very good look at how things operate in Hamtramck. And with the exception of the origin of the names, it really sounds as if it is business as usual in the small enclave.

“It’s pretty amazing that they all see a story here,” [Mayor Karen] Majewski says. “It seems all kind of unremarkable on the ground. But to think that they are sending people on planes to come here to scout around. And they’re not finding what they’re expecting to find. They’re looking for the mosque with the big minarets. They’re looking for ‘the Muslim neighborhood,’ you know. They’re kind of, surprised that everything is so low-key, and nothing exciting is happening. And it’s just kind of normal life.”

When it comes to national media scrutinizing Hamtramck as a Muslim hot spot, this isn’t the city’s first go-round. In 2004, the city allowed the call to prayer to be broadcast by mosques. Back then, The New York Times was the outlet to put “tension” in a headline, and NBC News showed up too. “But this seems more of a frenzy,” Majewski says.

After November’s election results, international Western media haven’t been shy about as they’ve nosed around town, in search of tension and conflict.

Residents may be able to cite a handful of instances of bigotry, but it doesn’t sum up who we are. It’s the exception, not the rule.

Jackman writes the story in the first person. He makes it clear he has a stake in the city and its growth. It is also clear he has little tolerance for Islamaphopia AND for grandstanding politicians.

Linking coverage Hamtramck to global reporting

The complaints Jackman has about how national and international media outlets report what is happening in Hamtramck can be replicated around the world.

Too often American news consumers have to depend on parachute journalism for reports from around the world. Too many foreign bureaus have been closed by major news organizations. Or, where those bureaus still exist, the area is so large, the reporters assigned to the area have a hard time developing a deeper understanding about the situation being covered.

Sidenote: I was always disappointed that the transition to democracy in Taiwan got such limited coverage. I was told by an editor once when I pitched a story about the transition back in 1992 that if it was important enough the Beijing bureau would pick it up.

Dammit. Beijing and Taipei are two completely different places with loads of cultural and political differences. Not to mention all the political baggage that both carry regarding each other.

Too many of my colleagues have too many things to cover and not enough resources to do the job as it should be done. Editors sit hundreds, if not thousands, of miles away and decide what the story should be despite what an in-depth look at the situation might indicate. (I still recall the editor who asked me to do a piece about living as a journalist under Chinese communist rule. The only problem is that I was in Hong Kong and enjoyed all the freedoms and civic rights of any democracy. The editor fell for a misunderstanding of how Hong Kong operated since the Chinese take over in 1997.)

One way for news organizations to learn more about a place, without making the massive investment in a bureau, is to look for solid freelancers. We usually have a pretty good idea what is going on in the country where we live. Too often we are relegated to writing about tourism, trade or business relations. So a nice juicy piece on politics would be nice.

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Filed under Connections, Ethics, International News Coverage, Story Ideas