Wednesday, April 12, 2017

How Sick Is the Dalai Lama?




I expect the PRC government has a team of spooks and doctors whose main job is to monitor the Dalai Lama’s public appearances for indications concerning his health.  The Dalai Lama’s April 8 visit to Tawang probably gave them something to chew on, because he didn’t look that good to me.

He was mentally acute and spirited, but whenever he walked he was supported by two monks.


Watching him struggle after he got up from the platform after two hours of religious teaching at Tawang makes me think there’s more going on than religious deference with the monk escort.

At the 2:33:00 minute point in this video you can see the Dalai Lama wrap up his talk, tuck his meds away in his little carry bag, and exit with some effort.


Last year the Dalai Lama received treatment at the Mayo Clinic for a month, presumably related to his prostate condition which I’m guessing is more like prostate cancer.  It looks to me like his physical condition had deteriorated.

Talking about the Dalai Lama’s health is an unwelcome subject for the Tibetan diaspora and government in exile, since the CCP strategy is clearly to drag out any engagement until the Dalai Lama passes on, and deal with a position of strength in any talks with his successor.

The Dalai Lama has declared he’s going to live to 90 (he’s now 82), when he'll finalize the succession issue.  Maybe he’s got some supernatural insight, but you have to wonder.

The Dalai Lama’s successor looks to be an “emanation” chosen during the Dalai Lama’s lifetime to pre-empt Chinese meddling.  Although there’s a possibility of an upgrade to “reincarnation” after the current Dalai Lama’s death, I doubt the successor will carry anywhere near the current Dalai Lama’s prestige and authority.

If, as is bruited about, the Dalai Lama chooses the Karmapa of the Karma Kagyu lineage as his successor, the new Dalai Lama’s clout will also be undercut by the fact that he’s not of the Gelugpa lineage that has dominated Tibetan Buddhist religion and politics for generations.  The Karmapa had some of the sheen taken off him by an ugly controversy in which it was claimed he was a pretender and a Chinese Communist mole.

The rough edges have been smoothed off the Karmapa controversy by the death of the alternate claimant’s main champion, Shamar Rinpoche, and a change in attitude by the previously suspicious Indian government and intelligence service.  On a broader stage, there’s a move to redefine Tibetan Buddhism as an ecumenical movement, rather than a congeries of independent-minded and ferociously contentious and occasionally murderous monasteries and religious leaders.

One sign of this was the festooning of Tawang with Buddhist flags for the Dalai Lama’s visit.  The Buddhist flag I am referring to is not the traditional prayer flag but the colorful stripy thing, which is actually a relatively recent innovation.  It was announced in Sri Lanka in 1885 with input from an American Buddhist (and Blavatsky Theosophist) enthusiast, Colonel Henry Steele Olcott and is supposed to symbolize the shared essential beliefs and potential for unity for a global Buddhist movement that transcends different traditions and teachings.

As a visual aid:

Traditional Tibetan Buddhist prayer flags at Tawang:



“Buddhist flag” at Tawang:




Buddhist, Tibetan, and Indian flags festooning the exterior of the Tawang monastery on the occasion of the Dalai Lama’s visit, which presumably hacked off the PRC no end:



A sign that the “all Buddhists are brothers and sisters” approach is working is the flourishing of the ecumenically oriented Tibetan Buddhist academy at Larung Gar in Sichuan inside the PRC. 

Larung Gar was founded in 1980 by a rinpoche of the Nyingma lineage, but its curriculum also incorporates Gelugpa and other teachings.  Perhaps its promise as a unifying, trans-lineage institution for Tibetan Buddhists—and one less susceptible to the divide-and-conquer strategy China has employed for centuries, most conspicuously in the case of its promotion of the Panchen Lama-- is why the PRC government restricts Larung Gar operations and is now tearing down parts of the immense favela of student housing that has grown up around the academy.

Here’s my most recent video for Newsbud, where I discuss the Dalai Lama’s visit to Tawang (and Xi Jinping’s visit to Mar a Lago!) and conclude that the next Dalai Lama will probably turn out to be more of brand ambassador for Tibetan Buddhism, a Dalai Lama Lite, rather than a galvanizing figure like the 14th Dalai Lama.


In my video, I mis-state the dessert that witnessed Donald Trump's announcement to Xi Jinping that he was pasting Syria with cruise missiles as "chocolate sorbet".  It was actually "the most beautiful piece of chocolate cake."

Apologies!

Saturday, April 01, 2017

Ratf*ck A Go Go! Atlanticists and MI5 Go After Trump!



I try to keep a certain distance from the anti-Trump circus.  But I do want to put some thoughts on record, given the obsession with Trump’s Russia connection and what I see is a determined effort to minimize the British/NATO angle in the attack on Trump.

My personal feeling is that there are significant swaths of the European establishment that derive their mission and meaning from serving as allies to the United States in an anti-Trump effort: the British government and intelligence services, NATO, various right-leaning European governments, their think tanks, in other words, the Atlanticists.

They didn’t like Trump because he was more interested in dealing directly and positively with Russia on matters of US strategic concern in the Middle East and Asia and much less interested in perfecting the Atlanticist Euro-centric anti-Russian containment/deterrence apparatus and backing crazy EU/NATO expansion stunts like the Ukraine operation.

Perhaps similar to Trump’s interest in dealing with China instead of doing pivot.  Difference is, Atlanticist lobby is much more entrenched in Washington, the NATO alliance is miles ahead of the “box of sand” Asian containment network, and Great Britain is America’s primary intelligence partner.

So I think people over the pond, particularly in Europe, were interested in feeding documentation on Trump’s murky Russia connections to his opponents, and especially on behalf of Hillary Clinton, who is very much an Atlanticist fave.  Effort was pretty low key at first because nobody expected Trump to get anywhere, but things picked up when he got the nomination, and then shifted into apesh*t crazytime when he got the presidency.

The British link is there for all to see in the notorious Steele dossier.  What people don’t want to see is the inference that Steele was either getting dirt from MI5/GCHQ or is simply a cut-out for a British effort.

I should say the possibility that the UK intelligence service may have been deeply involved in preparing the brief against Trump does not elicit an urge from me to spontaneously genuflect concerning the accuracy of the evidence.  I daresay psyops—packaging and releasing selective intel and innuendo at opportune times through deniable channels for maximum effect--is a core mission of British spookdom, as is making up utter crap, like the notorious “dodgy dossier” on Saddam Hussein.

An interesting datapoint is the Guardian leg-humping a story about Michael Flynn having conversations with a Russian-English historian causing “concern” to “US and UK officials”.   The only useful conclusion from this farrago, as far as I can tell, is that a) investigating Things Flynn was an official US-UK joint and not just Christopher Steele lunching Russian emigres in Grosvenor Square and b) the UK press is doing a similar tag teaming with US media to sell Trump/Russia like it pitched in with the US to sell Saddam/Iraq.

And the Guardian is doing it this time!  You’ve come a long way, baby!

The mega-uproar over the “GCHQ tapped Trump” story was, to me, quite interesting, for the massive full-court pushback it elicited and the grudging backdown from the Trump administration.

If the story proved out true, it would be a disaster for the UK.  

On the institutional level, confirmation that US investigatory and intel outfits resorted to GCHQ to, shall we say, supplement collection related to US citizens and *ahem* circumvent US laws would lead to demands for that bane of all spook prerogatives, oversight and perhaps a committee to review requests for intel exchange between the US and GCHQ before they happened (I recall reading that currently the NSA can reach into Five Eyes servers and pull out whatever it wants whenever it wants; it would be fun to find out in open testimony if that actually happens!).

On the political level, it would be hard to escape the imputation that Great Britain was conducting politically-motivated collection/querying/handover of intel concerning disfavored US politicians and officials, and that the English bulldog was INTERFERING IN AMERICA’S SACRED ELECTIONS, you know, like a certain country, name begins with R ends with A led by a guy name begins with P ends with N is allegedly doing.

It would be interesting to see how the public relations fracas on terms of “Putin trolls pushed fake news on Facebook” vs. “GCHQ pushed fake news into the FBI” would play.

GCHQ/MI5’s powerful capabilities and their slavish eagerness to put them at the service of the US are the glittering jewels in the tattered collar of the British poodle.  If GCHQ becomes a “normal” intelligence interlocutor of the US—with the added stigma of having engaged in politicized active measures on behalf of US factions—then the UK risks dropping to parity with *gasp* Germany as another arm’s length partner.

Fox’s alacrity in yanking some guy called “Judge Nap” for publicizing the GCHQ surveillance allegations was interesting.  You might expect Fox would be keen to push this rather provocative and open-ended talking point to provide some aid and comfort to Trump and ride a ratings-boosting angle.  But Fox shut Nap down!  

Wonder if Rupert Murdoch got the call from the UK government that any encouragement of this kind of tittle-tattle would call down the wrath of the British government on Rupert’s extensive media holdings in Britain.

Well, with Judge Nap in the cooler, I doubt any other Fox commentators will be too interested in pursuing that allegation.

And maybe the US intel community told Trump he’d be gone in a heartbeat if he threatened to compromise the US-GB special spook relationship to save his skin.  So he backed off.

If Trump falls on his ass I expect that will provide the political cover for some discrete “now it can be told” bragging about how the Atlanticist band of brothers joined hands to defeat the Russian menace.  If Trump hangs on, it just goes into the secret museum of US-UK ratf*cking operations.



Wednesday, March 01, 2017

Crouching Tiger, Leapin’ Lizards! The Great Wall Comes to America






[Update: I mis-stated Wanda's share of screens in the PRC cinema market.  It's about 14%, not "almost half".  Sorry!  And thanks to knowledgeable reader NV for pointing that out.  CH, 23/7/2017]

Here are embeds to my two most recent videos for Newsbud.  They pair together nicely as they track the evolving stories on Pakistan/Afghanistan and North Korea.  Trump may be sucking all the oxygen out of the mediasphere, but the usual suspects are still out there conducting the usual business of murder and mayhem.

The most recent video, While America Freaks Out, Asia Quietly Goes Crazy, also covers a couple stories that will achieve a higher profile in the news as the year goes on: Xinjiang and the Philippines.


In the earlier video, Asian States Play the Murder Card; Is the War Card Next? I have some fun in the closing bit with Asian monster movies in general—Pulgasari should be part of every kaiju fan’s cinematic vocabulary--and China’s The Great Wall in particular.


The Great Wall got slagged in the US as a piece of Chinese cinematic presumption.  Hollywood blockbusters are America’s soft power secret sauce, and woe to any Communist interloper that tries to steal the recipe.  Chinese audiences weren't quite nuts about it either, to be frank.

The interesting backstory to TGW is that China, via Wanda Group, has already mastered the exhibition end of the equation.  Wanda is the biggest deal in Chinese cinema, controlling about 14% of the market about half the screens .  It’s also embarked on an acquisition binge in the US, Europe, and Asia and expects to control 20% of global box office in a few years.

Wanda wants to be able to extort favorable distribution deals from the major studios (smart!) and its supremo, Wang Jianlin, has also expressed the desire to own a studio (nonononoNO!).  Apparently, in our brave new world of content creation and distribution this is not the anti-trust red flag it used to be.

The Great Wall was Wang’s first big-ticket foray into content creation, via Legendary Pictures, a Hollywood production outfit Wanda acquired a couple years ago.  Despite an anemic $36 million and change at the US box office, TGW pulled in $300 globally.  

When one considers that maybe Wanda through its cinema operation was on both sides of that take in maybe one-third of the theaters (as opposed the share of receipts it gets as simply the content creator), I’m thinking The Great Wall maybe didn’t earn back all of its rumored $150 million production budget plus its apparently supersized promotional budget, but it’s not a gigantic debacle for Wang.

The movie itself: not as bad as people say, in my opinion.  Of course, my expectations were low since LA hated the film, and my generous impulses were also shaped by the wonder of an $8 movie ticket, which is the price of admission on Tuesdays at Regal Cinemas flagship cinemas down at Staples Center/LA Live.  By Grabthar’s hammer, what a savings!

Anyway, the movie.  Warning: SPOILERS!


The movie’s debt to World War Z is pretty unambiguous.  Well, Max Brooks, the guy who wrote World War Z apparently cooked up The Great Wall with Legendary’s ex-jefe (now canned) Thomas Tull, and got story credit.  The basic theme of hordes threatening civilization is quite World War Z esque, and the visuals of monsters climbing the Great Wall during the main attack is, shall I say, embarrassingly similar to that zombie assault on the Israeli wall in WWZ.


For what it’s worth, I liked TGW better.  I once described the World War Z book as a masturbation aid for Carl Bildt, with its narrative that only the US, Israel, and NATO allies, with a spiritual assist from the Queen of England, have the sack to save the world from zombies while authoritarian countries (China, Russia and so on) are deservedly annihilated.

Once this movie got into the hands of Zhang Yimou, I think he visualized it as a wuxia spectacle.  Wuxia (martial hero movies) often involve badass bravos doing awesome sh*t in the riverlands, marshes, and mountains beyond the stultifying reach of Chinese state and society.

And in The Great World we are introduced into a wuxia environment of a secret martial order dedicated to garrisoning the Great Wall and, every sixty years, fighting off a herd of ravenous lizard monsters that basically just want to eat the world.

The Great Wall resists subtext, thereby frustrating cineastes, film buffs, and guys who post their opinions on the Internet.  Don’t try looking for metaphors of the Mongol threat or the Russian menace, in my opinion.  The monsters are there and the wall is there mainly so this band of brothers and sisters can do cool, crazy-heroic stuff together.  And they do it pretty nicely, in my opinion.

I didn’t have too much of a “Matt Damon white savior” problem, especially in what film people call “the second act” i.e. after everybody’s introduced and it’s time to demonstrate character through action.  Damon’s character is appealing, he meshes pretty well with the Chinese cast and, thankfully, there is no “older white guy getting it on with Asian ingĂ©nue” action between him and female lead Jing Tian.


I suspect, however, that nobody getting it on with Jing Tian-- i.e. Matt Damon diverting the narrative from thumping-hearts kids-in-peril romantic exploration and emotional fulfillment for Jing and the other main characters--might have been part of the problem in the Chinese market.

My main difficulty with the film is the “third act” the “resolution” which I now call, in homage to the New Yorker’s David Denby (who first coined the phrase in describing the ending of the Edward Norton Hulk movie), “the CGI pukefest”.

Bowing to Hollywood’s need to up the stakes for the finale, The Great Wall leaves “The Great Wall” and shifts the action to Beijing.  

The film’s most amusing, Chinese-y sequence occurs there, when the emperor is introduced to a captured lizard-monster by the usual crowd of sycophantic advisors.  But otherwise, the vibe is “we’ve just spent 80 minutes at the Great Wall and got to know it and like it now why do we have to move to Beijing??”  Well because, spoiler here, the lizards simply spent the entire second act tunneling through the Great Wall while mounting diversionary attacks, so all the cool heroic sacrifice stuff at the wall was useless bullsh*t.  

So the gigantic lizard army is done in and the world saved by Matt Damon improvising doofus greenscreen crap at some rando location at the end.  But it would have been just as big a drag if some Chinese actor had done it.  The heroes and heroines of the borderlands should have been given the honor of ending the movie at the Great Wall with their mad skillz, courage, sacrifice, and devotion.

One last note: a fumbled grace note in the movie was the name given to the monsters: Tao Tei.

In Chinese, the name is spoken taotie, a kinda cool reference to the ubiquitous taotie monster masks incised on the most ancient of Chinese bronzes.  

 

Nobody knows the origin of this iconography, so the movie is pretending it was a depiction of the real, fearsome lizard monsters that had ravaged northern China for millennia  (you can see the taotie insignia on the forehead of the beast displayed to the emperor; it’s also glimpsed in this still, though not too clearly).






I guess tao tie was deemed too awkward for non-Chinese tongues, so it got simplified to tao tei.  Well anyway.  Almost pulled it off! Metaphor for the movie!

Maybe next time Zhang Yimou will insist on more creative control over the script and get a chance to achieve some emotional resonance in his supernatural wuxia story, the way Ang Lee did in Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon.  

Until then, a decent effort, and it certainly was striking to see a Chinese movie with the signature Hollywood credits that go on for 15 minutes of literally hundreds of people doing weird digital mega giga computer stuff that you can’t even figure out what it is.

The movie’s good enough to keep Wanda in the blockbuster business, and I expect they’ll find the right formula in some subsequent outing.