President Barack Obama, fresh from winning an election (not least because his opponents had degenerated into a bunch of extremist freaks), passes through one of the world’s few remaining bits of authentic mid-20th Century-style Third World, complete with horrid flag, where the dictators are having to open up to avoid becoming absorbed into Yunnan Province, and he’s apparently a bit full of himself and can’t help but deliver what is, if you look at it, a more-than-slightly condescending speech to what a predecessor of his, when governor of the Philippines, would have called ‘our little brown brothers’.
No doubt well-intentioned, but a bit too heavy on the mission civilisatrice. It reminds me of the ‘sanctimonious sermonizing’ (Malaysian then-Foreign Minister Badawi) of then-Vice President Al Gore in the late 90s when he toured Asia dropping trendy buzzwords like ‘reformasi’, ‘People Power’ and ‘doi moi’ without knowing one from the other.
This is important because, although everyone’s too nervously polite to mention it, Asia from now on is going to be the focus of a struggle for power and influence between China and America. In the medium to long term, this clash can only become fiercer. China’s regional stance is to stress cooperation and mutual respect one minute and to lash out with more-or-less blatant threats of violence if any of its neighbours questions its increasingly acquisitive policies. To make things interesting, many Southeast Asian countries are essentially run by ethnic Chinese who are outnumbered by poorer natives who tend to have a latent racist streak. This should be fertile ground for the US to win the hearts-and-minds contest to be friendly neighbourhood cop and force for stability. But patting people on the head – this patronizingly – for taking their oh-so-impressive baby steps to democracy doesn’t help.
Maybe Hong Kong’s Central Policy Unit could offer some communications advice*. Pro-democrats like Emily Lau are naturally alarmed by its emergence as a propaganda machine. More interestingly, a civil service union is upset that the CPU could play a role in selecting appointees for government advisory bodies, claiming that the pen-pushers have some sort of magical power to perform this function, which mere mortal outsiders obviously lack. This sounds like an opportunity for the CY Leung administration to bring some uppity bureaucrats into line in the decision-making/policy-implementation scheme of things. A long-overdue thumping, that is. If only.
* Basically: shut your eyes and pretend they’re Europeans.