September 24, 2012

Riotous times

Every few years, with suspiciously convenient timing, the Chinese populace decides en masse that a few acres of volcanic rock in the middle of the East China Sea is the MOST IMPORTANT THING IN THE WORLD!!!

This time around, at least, geography has edged out history, or the Chinese leadership simply can't muster the galactic chutzpah to complain about the accuracy of Japanese middle grade history textbooks.

We're talking about a country, after all, that has a hard time telling the truth about what happened last week, and where nothing of historical importance apparently happened between 1949 and 1989.

In this game of international tag team wrestling, this year that job was left to South Korea in its geographical dispute with Japan over yet another outcropping of uninhabited volcanic rock.

Meanwhile, Russians living in Tokyo blithely lead unaccosted lives despite Stalin having stolen ("fair and square") the very much inhabited South Kurils ("a non-disputed part of Japan") in 1945.

Whatever the cause, the enraged public then sets about torching Toyota factories, dealerships, and the like, oblivious to the fact that Japanese don't own the franchises or work at them. The Toyota Camry

is produced in Guangzhou with 80 per cent local content and 100 per cent local labour . . . All of the Japanese automakers have state-owned Chinese partners that will also be missing out on sales of Japanese cars.

Having run out of convenient targets, the rioters next attack "Japanese" businesses like McDonald's, Samsung, and Rolex. (The flipside, I guess, of the Japanese propensity to tag any Caucasian foreigner as "American.")

The more interesting question is what makes $345 billion in trade a toy Chinese dictators would risk playing financial chicken with. Three possibilities spring to mind:

1) The average guy on the street can't protest against the government (without going straight to jail) and so takes the opportunity to protest against whatever else is available (the U.S. busy being rioted against elsewhere).

The problem is, wildfires are hard to put out once lit, as Monday's home-grown riot at a Foxconn factory demonstrates.

2) The much heralded transition to the new regime is generating more friction behind the scenes than anticipated, as illustrated by leader designate Xi Jinping's mysterious two-week sabbatical. The government needed a distraction.

3) A distraction from the economical situation as well. China's real economy is headed south faster than a Roadrunner with a Coyote on its heels, as illustrated by this banking strategy straight out of The Producers:

Chinese authorities are investigating a number of cases in which steel documented in receipts was either not there, belonged to another company or had been pledged as collateral to multiple lenders, industry sources said.

Speaking of Broadway productions, a verbatim conversation:

Hebei fellow: Where should we go?
Policeman: Are you here to work, or to protest?
Hebei lady: Umm, protest.
Policeman (pointing across the road): That way and turn right.

And in Shanghai, the Wall Street Journal reports that, aware of the "Pottery Barn rule" for foreign consulates ("You break it, you pay for it"), the mayor was eager to avoid a repeat of the last and very costly rampage.

This week's Shanghai protests were smaller and more orderly, and indeed some protesters got transported to the scene by police. As they were corralled between riot barriers protecting the consulate, demonstrators were stripped of any eggs and bottles.

Observed one of Peter Payne's Japanese employees, "It's just a festival they hold every few years." The "Kremlin watching" of the good old Cold War days has evolved into riot watching.

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