Saturday, 29 April 2017

Some thoughts on Taiwan and Globalization, Chinese Development

Recently I shared some thoughts on globalization’s effect on Taiwan, the economic and political development in China, and the modern day sense of counterintuitiveness. It’s up on the blog of the discussion group I’m part of. Much credit goes to the organizer, Tess, for making me sound coherent and presentable.

I hope you’ll get something out of it. We live in an interesting time.

Sunday, 5 March 2017

Book: Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II by John W. Dower

As a kid growing up in Taiwan, I was taught to look on Japan with both admiration and abhorrence. My mom, who had lived in Japan, tells me of the bullet trains, the clean streets, the quality products. On the other hand, the history teachers would tell us of the terror of the Nanking massacre and the violence during Japan’s occupation of Taiwan. It was difficult to reconcile both descriptions for me – how does a people go through military conquest during WWII, suffer defeat, then rise so quickly economically? What in the nation’s spirit could be seen in how it confronted defeat? These questions prompted my reading of this book.

Japan's mourning and rebuilding began after the emperor announced the surrender over the radio to his people. The country had to recover from being in war for longer than many of the European countries involved in WWII. Of the victors asserting control, America reigned supreme - its authority represented by General MacArthur. Even with American food aid, people's next meal still could not be guaranteed. They ate whatever they could find. Work attendance dropped as urban workers go to the country side in hopes of finding food, often in the black market at exorbitant prices. The government’s official food guidance included eating of grain husks, peanut shells, used tea leaves. As for protein, the recommendation was silkworm cocoons, worms, grasshoppers. Keeping fed became an obsession.

Childhood in the immediate post war was much affected. As many as 123,510 kids were homeless or orphaned. Many had to be tough – they shined shoes or delivered newspapers to get by, while some formed gangs for pick pocketing or prostitution. The cultural air is also reflected in kids' play, which included role playing games like American GI and the prostitute, mimicking black market activities and overcrowded trains.

Aside from physical hunger, the Japanese yearned for new philosophical framework for solace and to interpret the turmoil. Many formerly suppressed news publication flourished under American rule. In anticipation of a new work from philosopher Nishida Kitaro, readers started camping out in front of the bookstore and lining up 3 days before the expected publication date. The need for spiritual and moral thought was visceral.

Overall, the national mood was one of mourning, disillusionment, and self reflection. Many felt the need to grieve their deceased spouse, son, parent, and colleague, yet it couldn't be done officially for Japan bears the cause of the war and the government wasn't allowed politically to honour the dead.

The post war recovery split in two directions. As the emperor had been deified and the Japanese had been repeatedly taught that they live to serve the emperor, MacArthur and his administration believed the emperor must stay on the throne at all cost to maintain social stability during the recovery period. As such, while MacArthur championed the “demilitarization and democratization” ideal of transformation that sought to dismantle large government ministries and break away from the past, it also kept the emperor’s throne intact, representing historical, cultural, and social continuity. MacArthur’s team did much to exonerate the emperor from being implicated in war crimes, blaming the subordinates for the war conduct. This was seen by many Japanese as unfair – for they believed such duties were performed in service to the emperor.

The exoneration of the emperor and the way the Tokyo tribunal was run led some Japanese to view the conquerors as hypocritical. Many felt their wars of conquest weren’t much different from what the victors had done in the past with impunity. This became one of the major legacies of the time and an international political sore point to the present day. Japan had not formally apologized for their war conduct including the Nanking massacre. They believed such an apology would justify and cede to the Tokyo tribunal view of the war, which is unfathomable.

The second thorny question is defense. The Japanese constitution was rewritten to reinforce the idea of demilitarization (Article 9). Under it, Japan is to keep forces for only self defense purposes. But this has brought international criticism for its failing to act with its allies when the times call for it. At the same time, no Japanese had forgotten the horror of the war (including the Nanking massacre) and increasing the military’s reach even slightly would provoke wide domestic protest. Japanese politicians are between a rock and a hard place, and with ever powerful neighbours and mixed signals of American support, these questions are all the more pressing and relevant.

Under MacArthur’s reform, Japan did become vastly more open politically, but the Americans weren’t seen as faultless. When the cold war began, efforts to demilitarize Japan stopped and American government quickly and quietly reinforced powerful Japanese ministries it meant to dismantle so as to support the Korean war effort. Such actions made clear to the Japanese that American interest overrides their own.

Ashamed of defeat and the futility of the war, driven by the need for catching up to the world, feeling vulnerable and subservient to the west, and knowing any political or military rise would have alarmed the world, Japan threw itself fully towards economic development. In the 60’s, high quality Japanese products burst onto the world stage – it was a land of cheap and clunky goods no more. Japan’s quick rise surprised the world and itself, and the “Japan Number 1” ideal emerged that touted the model of government planned economy and a fostering of collectivism rather than individualism being the core of what made Japan successful.

At the wake of the Asian financial crash in the 90s, however, the Japanese model is shown not to be perfect and the nation has seen little economic growth since. Many elements of Japan’s rise is now unfortunately discredited wholesale.

I found the book to be helpful in answering some questions as to Japan’s reluctance to offer apology for the war, the political and economic climate that catapulted their economic status, and gave new light to the complex picture of how one people wrestles with its dark past.

Japan had reinvented themselves in 1867 with Meiji restoration, then again after WWII ended in 1945. The rise of this far east island had often surprised the world, bringing renewed energy to areas such as transportation, electronics, and architecture. I hope to see Japan rise again, and in a fashion that brings peace, prosperity, and enlightenment to all.

Monday, 30 January 2017

Book: Work Hard. Be Nice. by Jay Mathews

This is the story of KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program) – a promising charter school program in the US to geared for some of the toughest education consumers – 5th to 8th graders who come from low income families – and doing so with remarkable success. I had first heard of this book through a talk by Bill Gates. He had since blogged about this book and the organization in general. I very much enjoyed this book.

In the US, the prevailing assumption is that kids from low income background, with parents who also struggled with schooling in their youth and hold low paying work, do not have the same potential to achieve higher grades as their more affluent counterparts. As such, public schools in these areas don’t often provide challenging lessons, top notch teachers, or longer school days. Students in such schools perform consistently poorly on standardized tests and the cycle of poverty perpetuates.

KIPP’s founders wanted to change that. Mike Feinberg and Dave Levin – two white, Ivy League grads in their twenties who met at a gathering for Teach for America, decided to forge their own path to education – they would be driven by a mission, focused on measuring against their goals, and upend conventional thinking if they have to – and they did.

KIPP school days are long – from 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday to Friday. Every other Saturday, student comes to school for half a day, and for a few weeks during summer vacation, kids come into school also. Long school days have shown to help immerse students in the school program, and keep the children occupied for the same length of time while parents are working. Teachers provide their cell phone numbers to students so they can call anytime should they have issues with homework or seeking other kinds of help. Whereas in a conventional educational system, teachers are discouraged from visiting families, the KIPP founders saw this as an important avenue for building trust and earning support for the kids’ parents if they visited the family and accepted invitation to dine on some occasions.

The KIPP teachers work hard – beside the long hours, they need to encourage and motivate students who don’t enjoy as much support from affluent parents. It takes a different set of skills and constant attention. Feinberg and Levin didn’t start out as great teachers and struggled here initially – they couldn’t keep students focused, disciplined, and had a tough time making the lessons stick. But they search and ceaselessly pursued successful teachers in the local community to mentor them.  They learned that different discipline techniques are needed in different locales, and that kids can memorize math rules if they are taught through songs and rhymes, and how to be attentive and maintain order in class.

On the administrative side, Feinberg and Levin must do all of the above while finding venues for their program with little funding. In one instance, the lack of school space meant a KIPP class had to be held under the sun out on the sidewalk. The cofounders also had to earn the trust of low income families so they’d let their kids into the program and local education experts who they’d like to have as mentors against their Ivy League background. They’ve done so with persistence and sometimes ruffling some feathers.

The message is clear to students and their parents that KIPP is driven by founders who cared about the success of the students. The hard work seems to be paying off. As Mathews notes in his book:

About 80 percent of KIPP students are from low-income families. About 95 percent are black or Hispanic. The fourteen hundred students at twenty-eight KIPP schools in twenty-two cities who have completed three years of KIPP’s four-year middle school program have gone on average from the 34th percentile at the beginning of fifth grade to the 58th percentile at the end of seventh grade in reading and from the 44th percentile to the 83rd percentile in math. Gains that great for that many low-income children in one program have never happened before.

Successful as the organization has been, and vigorous and positive as the debate it stirred up has produced, KIPP is still young and there are questions as to whether it can be scaled across the US with similar effectiveness, or of its long term effect, or if the kids that have performed well were the result of an admission process that favoured kids with such potential in the first place. KIPP appears to be taking such discussions seriously and are conducting researches on these issues.

It remains to be seen whether KIPP can remain and sustain their earlier success, but signs are encouraging. I was glad to have read this book, to see how the entrepreneurial spirit is applied in the education space to great effect. Personally, I find it very heartening that the determinant factor to a student’s success seem not necessarily about resource and class size (though they do help), but on teachers who ceaselessly care for the students, demand the best from them, and become a champion for their cause.