The Week of April 30th, 2012

Chen Guangcheng at the US Embassy in Beijing on May 1, 2012. Creative Commons photo by U.S. Department of State.

1. Chinese Activist Overshadows Diplomatic Conference

Chen Guangcheng’s dramatic escape from house arrest, and subsequent flight to the US Embassy in Beijing, has led to an abundance of headlines in American papers. Chen, a blind lawyer, had been placed under house arrest since 2010 for his work related to exposing local policies in the Shandong Province involving forced sterilizations and abortions. With the help of other Chinese dissidents, Chen was able to travel 300 miles to Beijing where he sought asylum in the US Embassy. This put the United States in a precarious position, as it was gearing up for the important Strategic and Economic Dialogue with China. Ultimately Chen left the embassy to stay in a hospital after an agreement was made that he would not be harmed. Now he is being detained in that hospital by Chinese police. He has called a US Congressional Hearing by telephone asking for help and for permission to meet personally with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. It seems likely that the US will remain awkwardly unresponsive and allow China to take the lead in situation, as they have by saying Chen can study abroad, so to not anger China during the ongoing talks.

The scope of this incident within China itself is rather limited. The majority of Chinese citizens will not have open access to reports of the event, other than those that appear through official party sources, and search words related to Chen Guangcheng have already been blocked on the internet. A more interesting aspect highlighted by this case is the division between national and local levels of government in China. Responsibility for Chen, while important to officials at the federal level, ultimately fell on local bureaucrats. Rather than reflecting poorly on the government in Beijing, the consequences from this incident will therefore fall mainly on administrators in Shandong Province. In this way the national government avoids blame and embarrassment, within China at least, while some officials in Shandong are certainly now in the hot seat.

2. Europe in Crisis
Unemployment in the Eurozone hit a new high in March, according to a report from Eurostat released this Wednesday. Among the 17 EU countries, the average unemployment rate is 10.9 percent compared to 9.4 percent 12 months ago. This means more than 17 million people are unemployed, and the youth have been hit the hardest. In some countries, like Spain and Greece, unemployment among those 15 to 24 has topped Depression-era levels of over 50 percent.

These new reports were released at a critical time for France and Greece, which will both hold elections this Sunday. Serious discontent among politicians and the public about austerity measures and economic regulations has dominated political debates in the last few months. The rising social inequality and tension throughout Europe seems to have also caused a backlash against the body of the EU itself. Fringe political parties on both sides have opposed membership in the European Union, in contrast to the major parties, and have gained newfound popularity among a receptive audience. For example, the ‘anti-Europe’ National Front in France, led by Marine Le Pen, gained a record 17.9 percent of the vote in the first round of national elections.

This political instability and anti-EU rhetoric is reverberating throughout the continent. Greece has repeatedly discussed a potential exit strategy from the Eurozone, while countries like the Netherlands and the UK have officially fallen into a recession. It remains to be seen if these problems will start to be resolved by the austerity measures, or if the mounting issues will lead to dramatic change at the expense of the pan-European project.

3. Bush Era Torture Lawsuit Thrown Out
A lawsuit against John Yoo, a high-ranking lawyer in the Bush administration, was thrown out last Wednesday in a district appeals court in California. The case concerned work Yoo did as a part of the Office of Legal Counsel between 2001 and 2003. In this role, Yoo drafted a set of memoranda that became known as the Torture Memos, wherein he endorsed the use of waterboarding and other acts of abuse as legal. The suit — which was submitted by Jose Padilla, an inmate convicted of terrorist plots — concerned the harsh treatment that Padilla had suffered in prison. While not denying that these abuses occurred, the three-judge panel unanimously decided that, since it “was not clearly established in 2001-03” what was or was not torture, Yoo did not violate the ex-convict’s constitutional rights.

The court’s decision was based on the concept of “qualified immunity,” which protects state officials from threats of personal liability, and entitles them to fulfill their duties without fear of lawsuits. This has not stopped criticisms from arising regarding Yoo’s work as a lawyer for the Office of Legal Counsel, a branch of the Department of Justice which is commonly seen as impartial. In contrast to the Attorney General’s office, which is part of the President’s cabinet, the Office of Legal Counsel has historically provided independent opinions. For those in opposition to torture, the partiality of Yoo’s memo remains questionable. Whatever their thoughts, the result in this case is another blow to those hoping that individuals will be held responsible for US treatment of detainees during the Bush administration.

4. US Considers Selling Jets to Taiwan
The Obama administration announced last Friday that the State Department would give “serious consideration” to the sale of new fighter aircraft to Taiwan. The debate over arms sales to Taiwan has been ongoing since the passage of the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act, which committed the United States to selling defensive arms to Taiwan. As discussed above, America and China are on the eve of a major summit and even discussion of a deal with Taiwan will likely raise tensions, so this announcement seems to be a terrible strategic decision for the US. Although the timing seems off, the causes of this seemingly bizarre event stem from domestic politics.

The exact national motivation is Senator John Cornyn’s hold on Mark Lippert’s nomination. Mark Lippert is a senior foreign policy adviser to the Obama administration who has been nominated to become the next Assistant Secretary of Defense for Asian and Pacific affairs. Senator Cornyn is the junior senator from Texas, and has been advocating the sale of new fighter aircraft to Taiwan. Texas is home to Lockheed Martin, the company which manufactures the aircraft in question. Sen. Cornyn placed a hold on Lippert's nomination in February and has been pushing the administration to promise to sell the aircraft to Taiwan ever since. Last week's announcement represents a compromise between the two, indicating that the administration will promise to think about the sale without actually committing to it. The incident shows that, while a single senator is unable to make foreign policy, he or she can have a direct impact on it.

5. Comcast Under Scrutiny For Practices
Comcast faced increased pressure this week over practices that are seen by industry rivals as anti-competitive. The week’s first incident, on Monday, involved an executive from Sony, who criticized a Comcast policy which he believes may violate the FCC’s “net neutrality” rules. Comcast limits its residential customers’ monthly online data streaming to 250GB, or about 120 streaming full-length movies, but it does not count “Comcast On Demand” videos that are delivered through the Xbox 360 towards the 250GB data cap. Sony is reportedly considering launching a web-based video service, but is apparently waiting to see whether the FCC believes Comcast’s policy is illegal. As America’s largest provider of Internet, cable, and phone services, Comcast data streaming policies have a large influence over consumer behavior; if users have reasons to stream Comcast’s content instead of Comcast’s competitors’ videos, it would put those other services at a disadvantage. Sony’s stance echoes that of Netflix, whose CEO lambasted the same Comcast policy last week.

On Wednesday, another incident involved the FCC, who decided against Comcast regarding a
complaint filed by Bloomberg, a multinational news media company. The FCC ruled that Comcast, which groups cable news channels together in “neighborhoods” when it sets the channel numbers, unfairly excluded Bloomberg TV from its groupings of news channels.

In January, Comcast officially acquired a majority stake in NBC Universal, which includes MSNBC and CNBC, two major cable news networks and competitors of Bloomberg TV. Regardless of which way the FCC decides its upcoming case with Sony, the decision will have a major impact on legal precedents for trusts in the media industry. Further, Comcast’s acquisition of NBC Universal could lead to greater consolidation of the industry, as content providers team up with service providers. However, if the FCC continues to rule against Comcast, it could be a warning for other would-be vertical mergers.

Don’t Care
0. Supreme Court Loses Popularity

According to a survey conducted by the Pew Research Institute, the national approval rating of the Supreme Court is down to approximately 52%, its lowest in 25 years. The disapproval comes from both sides of the aisle, with Democrats and Republicans expressing comparable opinions regarding the high court. While their hearing of the Affordable Care Act’s constitutionality did decrease the public approval to some extent, the court’s popularity has been on the decline for the past two years.

Alarmists have stated that a loss of support could mean that court's proceedings will not be upheld as legitimate. President Obama has notably spoken out against the court as "judicial activists" and has criticized their overturning of a law passed by Congress by decrying them as "an unelected group of people." However, even with approval ratings the lowest in over two decades, the Supreme Court's approval remains significantly higher than similar ratings applied to Congress which have been between 9% and 17% since the debt ceiling crisis. The Supreme Court has weathered previous, controversial cases before under accusations of judicial activism, most notably Bush v. Gore in 2000, but has never lost enough public support to be considered illegitimate.