Tuesday, May 11, 2004

Kan's resignation saves pension 'reform'

The leader of Japan's largest opposition party, Naoto Kan, resigned this week over his non-payment of state pension contirbutions, effectively a form of tax-evasion. The contributions are deducted directly from the salary of most ordinary people, but some people, including the self-employed and politicians, have to make the payments themsleves. And a lot of politicians somehow forgot, including about half of the current cabinet and Kan, the leader of the opposition.
Kan's resignation followed that of Yasuo Fukuda, chief cabinet secretary - Peter Mandleson to prime minister Koizumi's Tony Blair, as it were. (American readers can compare him to Karl Rove instead). There has been much discussion about how this move by the ruling LDP (Liberal Democratic Party) forced Kan's hand, and even more about the succession in the opposition DPJ (Democratic Party of Japan). But the real story appears to be the way that Kan's resignation has drawn bad publicity away from the pension reform bill which the LDP and DPJ leaderships have been pushing and which has subsequently been passed by the lower house of the Japanese Diet (parliament).
According to an Asia Times report:
Even the conservative Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper offered Kan some backhanded praise in an editorial that noted that his resignation "has fulfilled his obligation" as signatory to a three-party accord as signed just before Fukuda announced his resignation last Friday.

The LDP and the DPJ agreed... to review the pension system by 2007 with an aim to unify all the public pension plans sometime in the future.

"His [Kan's] resignation prevented the agreement from becoming just a scrap of paper," the [Yomiuri Shimbun] newspaper said.

The actual package of pension bills on Tuesday in the Lower House was passed by a majority vote, with all votes along strict party lines. A final vote in the Upper House is expected the before the end of the current session on June 16.

For the public, the pension-reform bills consisted mainly of a plan to raise the premiums for mandatory national pensions operated by the government. By the year 2017, the monthly premiums will be raised from the current 13,300 yen (US$117) per month to a ceiling of 16,900 yen in 2017.

The reasoning is that money is needed to support the growing number of old people in Japan. But at same time, other legislation will lower the pension benefits paid by the government.

It should be noted that this is still basically the same premium-payment system into which some 40 percent of the pension payers, including elected members of parliament, resoundingly have chosen to evade paying. The bills will provide for tighter collection methods to be put in place.

In other words, the main opposition has colluded with the ruling party - to the rather extreme extent of the resignation of its leader - to lower pension payouts and increase payments. It is hardly surprising to see Japanese elites closing ranks like this - but it is appalling that they will get away with such radical action against the poor just when the Japanese economy is recovering, with - for example - Toyota posting profits of ¥1 trillion.

South Korea to delay troop deployment to Iraq by at least a month

South Korea - like Japan - has been under intense pressure from the US to send troops to Iraq. The South Korean government promised in November to send 3,600 troops by June adding to the 400 Korean medics and engineers who are already there. Now their despatch is being delayed, according to a report by ABC Radio Australia News. The announcement of the delay follows the recent publicity about US and UK torture of Iraqi prisoners, the increase in armed resistance in Iraq, the kidnapping of several East Asians in Iraq, including two South Korean missionaries, and the recent election in Korea with large gains for centrist and left-wing parties.
There has been a great deal of protest in South Korea against sending troops to Iraq, with thousands of people on the streets. (See this Green Left Weekly article about protest around Rumsfeld's visit at the end of 2003.) Compare this with Japan, where around half the population opposes sending troops to Iraq and there have been demonstrations of hundreds of people, large by recent Japanese standards, but not enough to rattle Japanese elites. There are already around 1000 Japanese troops in Iraq.

Arrests for fake milk in China

The BBC reports that 46 people have been arrested in connection with the fake baby milk scandal in China. The fake milk has no nutritional value and has lead to the deaths of tens of babies at least:
'Local press reports say more than 50 babies died there after being fed fake milk powder with no nutritional value.
The local authorities had known of the complaints for almost a year, but took no action until the scandal was publicised on national television. ...
Investigators found almost 30 factories producing the bogus product, according to Xinhua [the Chinese government news agency].
More horrifying stories have emerged in recent weeks, of industrial salt and pesticides containing cancer-causing ingredients being used in preserved vegetables and noodles.'

The British invasion of Tibet, 1904

There's a new book out, Duel in the Snows: The True Story of the Younghusband Mission to Lhasa, by Allen, Charles about the 1904 British invasion of Tibet.
From the summary on the Free Tibet website, the invasion seems to have been a typical British imperial operation, motivated partly by geo-political rivalry with Russia, partly by the greed and adventurism of the officers involved, and started on the pretext of 'a trivial border incident involving some Nepalese yak-herders [which was] declared by [Lord] Curzon [Viceroy of India] to be [an] 'overt act of hostility' on the part of the Tibetans'. It involved the usual crimes, including a battle that turned into a massacre at Chumik Shenko, looting of religious artifacts (now in the British Museum, naturally), violence and death-threats to prisoners, and negotiations in bad faith, designed to break down so that further military advances could be made with reinforcements called up.
Colonel Francis Younghusband, leader of the British forces, put into the peace treaty an article 'requiring the Tibetans to pay an indemnity of half a million pounds over 75 years, during which time the Chumbi Valley was to be occupied by Britain, and a 'separate agreement' giving the British Trade Agent to be based at Gyantse the right to visit Lhasa for consultations. These two clauses were inserted by Younghusband in defiance of orders, and concealed from his Government until the Treaty had been signed. They were immediately repudiated and Younghusband was ordered to stay on and renegotiate the treaty, which order he ignored.'
Naturally Younghusband got a hero's welcome when he got back to England: 'lauded by the British press, received in private audience by the King, greeted with rapturous applause when he lectured at the Royal Geographical Society in London and at the Scottish Royal Geographical Society in Edinburgh. He received honorary doctorates from the Universities of Edinburgh, Bristol and Cambridge.'
The expedition's local expert, Dr. Waddell, was equally culpable, carrying out the looting, beating and death-threats mentioned earlier, perhaps unsurprisingly given his low opinion of Tibetan culture: he wrote a book arguing that Tibetan Buddhism was a perverted form of the religion.

Demonstrations during Wen Jiabou's visit to UK

There were 50 (according to Bloomberg) to 150 protestors (according to the Scotsman) from Falun Gong and Free Tibet groups outside the Chinese emmbassy in London yesterday. I had heard that there would also be Taiwanese independence activists, but if they were there, they were missed by the press.
The Bloomberg story quotes a Free Tibet spokesman who points out that 2004 is the centenary of Britain's invasion of Tibet. There's a page about their campaign for an apology from the UK government on their site.

China threatens to lock down its position on Taiwan independence

Wen Jiabao said yesterday that he would consider legislation to define Taiwanese independence and mandate steps against it. The point seems to be to adopt the standard - but dangerous - negotiating position of a line in the sand which your opponent must not cross, a form of ultimatum, or non-negotiable position.
Specifically, the aim must be to prevent the DPP administration from putting certain changes to the Taiwanese constitution in the referendum which is planned for 2006, as suggested by Reuters, elaborating on the China Daily report. I'm not sure what wording exactly is at stake.

Chinese Kremlinologists will presumably be interested in the way the proposal was put forward - by one Shan Sheng, apparently a member of the Chinese community in the UK, at a meeting with Wen Jiabou, who is visiting.