Archive for June, 2011

A post over at Whose World Order? for ECFR after a protracted silence on that front due to travel. Am going to hammer out a few more of these over the next few days as we have quite a busy period here in Shanghai with an upcoming conference I am helping run which should produce some interesting insights that would be interesting in this format.

Shanghai View: What are you watching?

Date: 13th June 2011  |  Author: Raffaello Pantucci,

Categories: China,
Tags: ChinaHollywoodSiffSoft PowerShanghai International Film Festival

The Shanghai International Film Festival (SIFF) got underway this weekend. Amongst the speakers that they attracted to the opening events, media mogul Rupert Murdoch made an appearance, lavishing praise upon the rapidly growing Chinese film market – from $150 million in box office takings in 2005 to $1.5 billion in 2010 – but also highlighting the still highly restrictive nature of the market to outsiders. Few outside China know that the government only allows 20 foreign films onto Chinese screens every year.

To clarify, this does not mean 20 American films (though of course the 20 tend to mostly be American), but the Chinese government only allows in 20 films from outside the nation every year to be screened legally in Chinese cinemas. These are also edited for extreme violence or sexuality, leading to some rather odd cutaways. I went to see GI Joe – not a proud admission – and at a crucial point when a character was having his face altered, it cut rather abruptly to the next scene. It took me a moment to figure out what had happened and most of the rather simple film to figure out what had taken place in the missing minute or so. The idea is to protect the Chinese public from the amoral depravity of some foreign films (something that is also practiced in Singapore for example), but also it is a way to keep out films with questionable political content. This equally applies to television, though in a more curious way since while Korean soap operas are hugely popular, western ones cannot be found on Chinese television.

An underlying logic of all this is to give the Chinese film industry a chance to develop and grow in a protected environment. The result of Chinese blocking of websites like YouTube, Facebook and Twitter has been to create a raft of local alternatives (Youku/TudouRenren and Weibo) some of which are now floating on international exchanges like the NASDAQ. By keeping foreign films out, they hope a domestic industry will develop that can compete with Hollywood or Bollywood. But it is unclear that this is working. In a Wikileaked US diplomatic cable from March 2007, expected incoming leader Xi Jinping was reported stating, “Chinese moviemakers neglect values they should promote.” In contrast he thought that Hollywood made movies well and the films “have a clear outlook on values and clearly demarcate between good and evil.”

I feel like the demarcation between good and evil in Chinese films is usually pretty clear. But what is missing is a level of quality and diversity. Chinese films tend to fall into categories of being Romantic Comedies (with storylines like Friends), epic historical films (like the Founding of a Republic, a massive film starring just about every famous Chinese actor, that came out to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the founding of the PRC), or elaborate special effects laden Kung-fu films (into this category I also put Sci-fi, fantasy and other such movies). Very few introspective or profound Chinese movies are released. The result is that they do not get a huge amount of airplay outside China – occasional breakthroughs do appear, but they often tend to have some heavy outside influence as well. For example, the hugely successful Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was a Chinese-Hong Kong-Taiwanese-American production.

Despite the availability of pirate DVDs (have a look around Youku and Tudou) this deprives the US and EU of a key part of their soft power – or at least puts it in a legal grey area. This is unfortunate as the free-flow of stories from the West to China and back is clearly one of the most effective ways to foster deeper understanding between the two. Clearly the next Chinese leader likes American movies; surely Xi Jinping can see the advantages of bringing more of these stories to the population he is about to lead.

A new piece for Foreign Policy, this time in reaction to Ilyas Kashmiri’s possible death. The ideas have been percolating around for a while and the possible death of Kashmiri inspired me to put pen to paper. I am not entirely sure I have given them enough space here – understanding better the importance of these leaders within the context of these groups is something that needs a bit more clinical examination in my mind and is something that I will try to explore in a longer text once I have some time. In the meantime, if anyone comes across any good texts or articles on the topic, please forward them on!

Al Qaeda’s Toughest Task

Slain jihadi leaders like Ilyas Kashmiri and Osama bin Laden aren’t so easily replaced.

BY RAFFAELLO PANTUCCI | JUNE 6, 2011

The reported death last week of Ilyas Kashmiri, the notorious jihadi leader — if true — is merely the latest in a long line of decapitations of al Qaeda and affiliated groups. Osama bin Laden fell a few weeks before him, and men described as “senior” or “important” leaders, like Baitullah and Abdullah Mehsud, Hamza Rabia, Mohammed Atef, Saeed al-Masri, and others, have fallen before them.

But does cutting the head off the snake really matter? Can’t they just be replaced by the next militant waiting in the wings?

Not so easily. Although the consensus among experts is often that the deaths of such tactically and ideologically important leaders do not destroy groups, their loss does have an effect. Kashmiri’s death will not herald the end of violence in Pakistan or the threat to the West, but it will reduce al Qaeda’s capacity to strike. Long-standing warrior leaders are important figures in the ideological clash against groups believing themselves in a millenarian struggle. Bringing the big men down will help accelerate their groups’ demise.

Leaders like Kashmiri, who lost a finger and an eye in the Afghan war against the Soviets, are able to provide inspiration through their biographies. His time as a fighter in Afghanistan and Kashmir gave him connections across groups and networks in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and gave him a reputation as a fierce warrior leader. He built this personal narrative and connections into a formidable network operating under the name 313 Brigade, in reference to the 313 companions who fought alongside the Prophet Mohammed at the Battle of Badr, and was named by Masri as the leader of al Qaeda in Kashmir. He was also clearly effective in providing direction to terrorist cells, as shown by his suspected involvement in the May 22 attack on Karachi’s naval base (his latest attack on the Pakistani state), strikes in India coordinated from his base in Pakistan, and his ambitious plan to attack newspaper offices in Copenhagen.

A similar portrait can be painted of bin Laden. His life story embodied the jihadi ideal of an Islamist warrior giving up everything to fight against the unbelievers. His strong connections to the community of wealthy Gulf Arabs with deep pockets and pro-jihadi sympathies strengthened his inspirational role and made him a prize asset for al Qaeda. Many other longtime leaders and warriors fighting in Afghanistan or Pakistan — their histories and connections stretching back to before the current conflict — claim the same mythical status.

But Kashmiri and bin Laden will be hard to replace. Their historical roles as front-line warriors not only earned them credibility with other local militants, but also brought them into contact with the community of regional and global warriors, giving them tentacles around the world. Bin Laden’s network is well-known while Kashmiri’s is currently on display in Chicago, where a key trial witness named David Coleman Headley is highlighting connections between Kashmiri — seemingly his key al Qaeda contact — and cells in the United States, Britain, India, and Sweden.

New leaders tend to either be less strategically seasoned or prove unable to replicate the formula the old leader had. Al Qaeda in Iraq was never the same after Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was killed, and Yemen’s Aden-Abyan Islamic Army never really survived the death of its leader Abu al-Hassan, instead becoming subsumed by regional al Qaeda-linked cells. In both cases, the deaths of leaders with contacts and celebrity deprived the groups of their appeal. This means fewer recruits, less funding, and less capacity to launch audacious plots. Spectacular attacks like May 22’s brazen assault on Karachi’s naval base, which some have linked to Kashmiri, require great nerve and audacity to pull off, driven by an inspirational figure who can convince fighters to die for the cause.

Technical skills also matter. Bomb-makers often prove to be an essential ingredient in making an effective terrorist organization. In Yemen, it may be Anwar al-Awlaki who provides the English-language narrative that is drawing young Western fighters to his side, but it is Ibrahim al-Asiri who is building the innovative bombs with which al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula continues to penetrate airport security. Both play key roles and, if removed, would damage their organization.

But neither of these individuals has the caliber or longevity of Kashmiri or bin Laden. Asiri’s technical skills, like those of numerous other master bomb-makers before him, are replicable: They can be written down, taught, and ultimately learned by others. Awlaki’s stirring rhetoric and message would be missed, but he has not yet managed to enter the pantheon of leaders of global jihadism and is still learning the ropes as a jihadi preacher.

When dealing with a terrorist organization like al Qaeda or Brigade 313, it is unlikely that what comes next is going to be any different from what came before. For this reason, it doesn’t much matter whether key jihadi leaders are eliminated, because their successors will likely follow the same radical path. Al Qaeda in Iraq may have been damaged by the death of its butcher-in-chief Zarqawi, and there is little evidence that the group has deradicalized in his absence.

But when dealing with a tribal insurgency like the Taliban, the radicalization that results from decapitating strikes can backfire. Those who follow are likely to be more radical than their predecessors and carry additional grudges that will impede them from putting down arms. The tribal codes that dictate life in Pakistan’s lawless provinces and Afghanistan often demand a response that may supersede reason.

Drone strikes and SEAL teams directed by strong intelligence are waging an effective war in bringing down key leaders in al Qaeda. With the deaths of bin Laden and Kashmiri — two irreplaceable giants of the global jihad — we can at least start to see the end of the core group hiding in Pakistan.

A longer paper for ECFR with Jonas looking at China and the Arab Spring. It has managed to pop out before a longer piece on EU-China I am working on, but hopefully that should also land soon. The whole paper can be found here, with a slight typo in my name. The published text to release it is below.

 

China’s Janus-faced response to the Arab revolutions

China’s zigzagging response to the Arab revolutions: How Europe can benefit

China was caught off guard by the Arab revolutions. Its first response in Libya was to go along with international sanctions against Gaddafi for abuses on his people while undertaking its largest evacuation mission of Chinese citizens. It then changed tack and verbally opposed international military action. The protection of citizens abroad didn’t extend internally in China, where a crackdown was carried out in response to minor breezes of the Jasmine Spring.

This zigzagging response to the crisis points to the new pressures that Beijing is under, from growing international interests, pressuring traditional non-interference principles abroad, to a population that is also increasingly connected to events across the globe.

A new policy memo published by the European Council on Foreign Relations, China’s Janus-faced response to the Arab revolution, explores these arguments. The authors, Jonas Parello-Plesner andRaffaello Pantucci, argue that:

  • China has now laid down a ‘responsibility to protect’ its own citizens abroad. China’s international interests (it had an estimated 38,000 nationals in Libya, along with contracts worth $18.8 billion) mean it can no longer remain aloof from developments like the Arab revolutions.
  • Beijing’s behaviour is increasingly influenced by relationships with other nations, for instance South-South cooperation. Its initial support for sanctions in Libya was influenced by the stance of Arab nations and the Arab League.
  • Beijing’s domestic crackdown, including the arrest of artist Ai Weiwei, demonstrate the authorities’ concerns about increasing connections to the outside world and the internal development of a bustling public sphere with more than 400 million internet users and where microblogs are used to dodge censorship and expose official corruption.

Click here for the pdf of the memo

The authors argue that the EU has the opportunity to push for Chinese responsibility on the international stage because China sees a pragmatic need to protect its investments and citizens. They recommend that:

  1. The EU should engage with China on framing stability in a broader bandwidth and look at joint approaches to crisis management and good governance in third countries.
  2. EU should develop a strategy for influencing China through others, as Arab and African reactions to Libya counted more than Western pressure. A discreet China component could be added to EU dialogues with other emerging countries.
  3. The EU needs to remain vocal and consistent on Chinese human rights and internal reforms.

“Chinese zigzagging is a reflection of a broader realisation that its previous posture of absolute non-interference is increasingly at odds with its global economic presence.”