The New Media War

THE past year or so has been an extraordinary time for the media, and not in a good way. The enmity directed at the press by governments and the public is unprecedented in its global scale and volume; with startling speed the historic concept of the “Fourth Estate” seems to have evaporated, leaving the traditional media with a serious existential crisis both as an industry and as a necessary component of society.

To whatever extent it deserves to be having its crisis, the increasingly harsh rhetoric and open attacks – some of them legal, most of them not – directed at the media is alarming. In January of this year, two Reuters correspondents were sentenced to seven years in prison under a colonial-era state secrets law after investigating reports of killings of Rohingya villagers by security forces. In just the past several weeks, disturbing events have happened at an accelerating pace. Early last month, prominent Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi – a Washington Post columnist and US resident who was noted for his criticism of the Saudi government – was killed, dismembered, and his body dissolved in acid inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, apparently on the orders of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman. About a week later, Jake Clapper, a former senior intelligence official and CNN commentator critical of Donald Trump, was targeted by one of more than a dozen letter bombs sent to prominent Trump critics and Democratic Party figures last month by a rabid Trump supporter. At the end of October, voters in Brazil swept ultra-right wing Jair Bolsonaro into the presidency; Bolsonaro has been vocal in his threats against Brazil’s “fake-news media,” stoking fears among journalists and news outlets.

On Wednesday, the day after the chaotic US midterm elections, CNN White House correspondent Jim Acosta had his press credentials revoked and was barred from White House grounds after a testy exchange with Trump during a news conference. Trump, who has regularly attacked the media critical of him and his administration as “enemies of the people,” has since threatened more reporters if they don’t “treat the presidency with some respect.” Also on Wednesday, right-wing Fox News commentator and ardent Trump supporter Tucker Carlson’s home in Washington, DC was attacked by a group of about 20 “antifa” (“anti-fascist”) protestors.

A little closer to home, Singapore authorities on Friday threatened draconian legal action against the “alternative media” site States Times Review if it did not retract an article linking Singapore Prime Minister to Malaysia’s 1MDB scandal. In a post to Facebook Friday evening, the news site said it would not remove the offending article, and invited the Singapore government to file the appropriate charges; Singapore’s Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA) later blocked access to the website.

Here in the Philippines, the Department of Justice on Friday recommended the filing of tax evasion charges against the online news site Rappler and its CEO Maria Ressa. Rappler, one of the most vocal critics of President Rodrigo Duterte, had its corporate registration revoked earlier this year by the Securities and Exchange Commission over violations of prohibitions against foreign media ownership.

Gray areas

All of these cases and the many, many other less-publicized incidents of journalists and news organizations around the world being harassed or threatened by various means bring howls of indignation at the violation of “press freedom,” but that is no longer regarded with the sanctity it once was. The public support for the protection of the fourth estate ideal that media and its advocates evidently are hoping for has failed to materialize, and as a consequence, “anti-media” actions continue to be carried out with relative impunity.

Part of the indifference toward “attacks on the media” can be attributed to the widespread perception that the media itself is not entirely blameless for the persecution it suffers. In most of the examples described above, there are potentially extenuating circumstances that complicate the issues.

In some cases, there seems to be a lack of realistic situational awareness. The two jailed Reuters journalists in Myanmar, for instance, probably ought to have been aware of the potential legal weapons that could be used against them, given how explosive the issue of the Rohingya minority is in that country. Not only does the Myanmar government adhere to a practically formal policy of eradicating the Rohingya, it is overwhelmingly supported in it by Myanmar’s other ethnic groups that make up the majority of the population. The Reuters newsmen may have realized all this and believed that the story they were pursuing was important enough to run the risk. If that’s the case, they deserve some respect for their commitment and bravery, but the end result makes them martyrs, not necessarily journalists who were treated unfairly – at least not according to the standards of the political and social environment in which they were working.

Much the same can be said of Jamal Khashoggi as well. Saudi Arabia is an absolutely monarchy, whose leadership can do pretty much whatever the hell they want to do – include brutally quash dissent – within their own realm (which, by diplomatic custom, extends to the properties on which their overseas embassies and consulates sit). He may have realized his antagonism towards the Saudi rulers was putting his life in danger, and persisted out of conviction that he was doing the right thing. On the other hand, there are indications that he, just like the Reuters correspondents silenced by being imprisoned in Myanmar, was counting on the nebulous, but outdated presumption of media sanctity. After all, his visit to the Istanbul consulate where he met his gruesome end was made for a reason a man who does not expect to be a martyr might have – to secure an official certification of his civil status as a divorcé, so he could marry his girlfriend.

And in some cases, the tribulations of media are legitimate subjects for schadenfreude, because they are examples of arrogance getting its comeuppance. Tucker Carlson uses his position as a “journalist” to recklessly spread a provocative ideology of hate and discrimination; the man can’t repeatedly kick the hornet’s nest, and then cry foul when his fig leaf of respectability as a part of the media doesn’t protect him when the hornets finally emerge. Maria Ressa and Rappler have much the same problem: They attracted a backlash from the biggest target of their criticism by dispensing with any notion of journalistic objectivity, and in some cases, basic facts, but are finding it difficult to argue that “press freedom” exempts them from adhering to basic business regulations.

Divinity lost

What really undermines the credibility and authority of “the media” is that it is not necessarily a specialization any more. Thanks to the evolution of the digital world and the variety of platforms it offers, anyone can become “the media”; as a matter of fact, virtually everyone who is “connected” in some manner is already “the media,” even if they’re not aware of it.  “The media” as a discrete, privileged entity doesn’t exist anymore; its remnants are simply toward the right end of a continuum that stretches across all of society, and varies only in terms of motives, capabilities, and resources.

Another factor that breaks down the myth of the media as some kind of special social case is the inescapable fact that all media – the entire spectrum, from the barely-literate teenager posting duckface selfies on Instagram to global news organizations – is a for-profit business. Whether earned value is measured in the mundane social cache of attention or in dollars and cents, every purveyor of information has a market, and tailors the product to that market’s demand. That means that bias is an inseparable part of the media product; there is such a thing as “journalistic integrity” – doing thorough research, presenting verifiable facts, and drawing rational conclusions – but the concept of “impartiality” or “objectivity” is a lie, and always has been. It’s only been in the very recent past that the wider public has begun to catch on to this, and many organizations who still consider themselves “the media” have yet to accept it, even though it’s obvious to any news consumer; pick up any two newspapers, or watch any two TV newscasts, and you will inevitably see the same set of facts presented in two different ways.

All of this simply means that potentially everyone is a producer in the same big marketplace for information and ideas; the only real differentiation between any two entities is market share, and that’s a variable. The newspaper which provides content that I supply to it as part of its product to that marketplace has no more immutable claim to authority than I do writing on my own for this blog. The duckface teenager theoretically has the same opportunity to establish credibility as Fox News does; she may not have the same resources or skills, but fundamentally she is a player on the same stage – neither has any more or less natural right to be there than the other.

Don’t bring talking points to a gun fight

The “war on media” is not really a war as much as it is a global-scale, anarchic riot. There are those who are trying to peddle certain knowledge products in the marketplace, and there are those who are trying to stop them. No, it is not in any sense morally right that a producer of information and ideas is stopped from plying his trade by being chopped up and dissolved in a bathtub. The morally right thing to do for someone who is dissatisfied with that particular seller’s wares is to patronize or produce superior ones, not kill his competition. Or bar him from the White House press room, or threaten his home and family, or use an obscure law to throw him in jail, or mail him a pipe bomb, or threaten to ruin his business. But these things happen, and simply arguing from a moral position that they should not obviously doesn’t stop them from happening.

It’s like trying to defend oneself from gunfire with curt language. Bullets have no respect for your sensibilities, and the one holding the gun probably doesn’t, either. The only things that will protect you when someone is shooting at you are to either shoot back, or hide behind something that can stop a bullet.

The media – however it is defined, and whoever identifies as a part of it – will continue to lose battles to the Trumps, Bolsonaros, and bin Salmans of the world unless it can change its perspective: Dispense with the victimhood, and think in terms of aggressive market dominance. Rather than complaining that someone is using foul means to prevent a certain message from reaching the marketplace, concentrate on product improvement – making that message so compelling, so irresistible that demand for it is overwhelming and nothing can stop it.

 

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What has the CAC done to ‘curb corruption’?

FOR the second time in as many weeks, an “anti-corruption” group calling itself the Coalition Against Corruption (CAC) has issued a demand for the resignation of Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez 3rd, saying that he has done nothing to stop rampant corruption in the Bureau of Internal Revenue (BIR) and the Bureau of Customs (BoC).

Until last Tuesday, no one had ever heard of the “Coalition Against Corruption,” but the group gained public attention with a statement hammering the Finance chief for his “deathly silence” on the apparently unstoppable large-scale drug smuggling in the BoC, as well as a lack of “visible initiative to curb corruption” by the Department of Finance in both the BoC and the BIR.

Malacañang reacted predictably, offering a reassurance that Dominguez continues to have the full confidence of the president and the rest of the government, and Dominguez himself called the CAC’s accusations “interesting.” The dismissive responses only irritated the CAC, which doubled down on its vacuous demand over the weekend in another statement.

As a bonus, the CAC’s weekend statement included a lengthy harangue against a certain Jun Ledesma, who supposedly impugned the group’s reputation by calling it a “bogus organization” in a blog post. The CAC protested that it is not a bogus organization, as its incorporators “are individuals who have consistently supported good governance and the President’s war on corruption.”

“Mr. Ledesma, we demand a public apology for the malicious statements you made against CAC and maligning our persons. If no such apology is made within a week of this publication, we will file appropriate charges against you in the relevant courts,” the CAC warned darkly.

Resignation not a solution

As regular readers of my column in The Manila Times surely realize by now, I am in no sense a fan of Sonny Dominguez, but I am even less a fan of utter nonsense, which is what the call for him to resign is. The Times’ editorial last Thursday summed up the reasons why it is utter nonsense fairly well, and I agree with the paper’s point of view: The organization of the government’s revenue agencies being what it is, Dominguez has little to do with how they are run. Yes, he might try to exercise some influence to help improve the performance and reliability of agencies like the BoC; the Times made that suggestion, and Dominguez himself acknowledged that he does pay attention to current events to the extent he is able despite what critics like the CAC may think.

As far as the by now well-documented corruption in the BoC is concerned, even though it is a line agency of the DoF, Dominguez had no formal role (and possibly not even an informal one) in selecting the disgraced officials to run the bureau, and neither Dominguez nor anyone else at the DoF has any operational control over it. Unless there is compelling evidence to suggest that Dominguez was more involved in either an official or personal capacity, the call for him to resign on the basis of some vague notion of command responsibility is ludicrous. It is even more irresponsible with respect to the accusations of corruption at the BIR, which the CAC didn’t even bother to explain, apparently assuming that “the BIR is corrupt” is accepted as an axiom.

Calling for an official to resign based on a contrived judgment of shame is a Pinoy political trope, a bastardized Japanese concept with a Spanish name – delicadeza. And it is honored just about as often as one would expect, or as such an idiotic notion deserves, which is almost never. The reason why it isn’t is those who make the call either do not have the discipline to make a sound accusatory case, or don’t actually have a case to make in the first place. The CAC’s demand that Dominguez resign lacks basic logic, as most such demands do; if action is needed to “curb corruption,” then action, not its functional opposite, should be the demand.

Club culture

The existence of an organization calling itself the “Coalition Against Corruption” is another Pinoy political trope. Filipinos are by nature inveterate belongers; the vast majority of them seem to feel their lives lack validity if they don’t belong to something, which is why this entire society is organized into self-important little cliques – car clubs, village associations, business groups, fraternities, groups of various political orientations or promoting assorting social causes – one has to identify with something in order to be regarded as having any identity at all.

Politically-oriented groups run the spectrum from actual quasi-parties under the country’s cumbersome and abused party-list system – groups representing “marginalized sectors” that include, among others, construction workers, people who own cars or motorcycles, cable TV operators, retired cops, people who want better internet, electric distribution utilities, and softcore porn performers – to more loosely organized groups championing various causes. Many of these groups are well-meaning and a few even accomplish something substantial, but there are an alarming number who are in it just for the attention; by all appearances, the CAC is one of these.

The sad thing is the people behind the CAC probably honestly believe that the mere fact that they created an “organization” confers credibility on them. There is not, however, any shortage of “individuals who have consistently supported good governance and the President’s war on corruption” – not in a country where his public approval ratings halfway through his term are still floating in the vicinity of 70 percent.

Simply “being supportive” is not supportive action, and making a completely irrelevant call for the resignation of the Finance Secretary isn’t either. Has the CAC done anything other than make “interesting” accusations against the head of the DoF? Has the CAC, for example, investigated and exposed corruption in any government office? Has it assisted any whistleblower who has come forward with evidence of malfeasance? Has it filed or substantially participated in the filing of any cases against any corrupt officials?

Given that the recent canard launched against Finance chief Dominguez was very likely the first time most of the public even knew the CAC existed, probably not. That being the case, one should question the wisdom of the media in even giving them a platform; anyone is free to have an irrelevant opinion, either individually or collectively, but simply expressing it doesn’t make it news.

How not to be a Hack, Lesson 1: Remove the word “breaking” from your vocabulary

IF you want to make your otherwise legitimate news story look like cheap click bait, adding the word “breaking” to the headline is a good way to do it. Here is an example from earlier this week, posted online by Inquirer.net:

“BREAKING: Singer Rico Puno dead at 65.”

As an explanatory side note for those who may be unfamiliar with Philippine popular culture, Rico Puno was an enormously popular singer, and considered one of the pioneers of the “OPM” (Original Pinoy Music) style. He died early Tuesday morning (Oct. 30) of a heart attack, and his death was announced shortly afterwards in posts to social media by his sister-in-law.

At no time from the moment Mr. Puno died until the Inquirer picked up the news several hours later was this a “breaking” story. Calling it one just kind of makes the Inquirer look stupid, and you will look stupid, too, if you do the same thing in one of your stories.

“Breaking” in the context of a news story can mean one of two things. As a verb, it describes the act of presenting news that no one else knows, and has not yet been published: “We are breaking the news that Rico Puno has died.”

There is never any reason to use “breaking” in this manner. At best it is redundant, describing an action that is self-evident in the existence of the story. It would be a little like a TV newsreader saying, “I am speaking on camera to tell you that Rico Puno has died.”

The second meaning of “breaking” is as a present participle: “This is breaking news.” In this sense, it describes news that is in the process of developing, about which complete information or a conclusion is not yet available.

There is just one valid reason to use “breaking” to describe a story. If the nature of the story is such that the public needs to be made aware of it even before all the details are known – in other words, the news is something that would be disruptive to normal activities or pose a safety risk – then it can be legitimately described as “breaking”: “Breaking news from New York: There are reports that a plane has crashed into the World Trade Center.” That’s a “breaking” story, because even if details such as how bad the damage is, what kind of plane was involved, and the reason the plane crashed into the building are not yet known, people need to know that a serious incident has occurred; they may want to check on family or friends who are in the area, or leave or avoid the area themselves. Even in this case, however, actually using the word “breaking” is probably unnecessary; the fact that the story is incomplete and that the public should stay alert for updated information should be apparent from its content.

The death of a singer, even an extremely popular one, is not an ongoing event, nor is it generally disruptive to the public or a significant number of people, and thus is not “breaking” news; nor was Inquirer “breaking” the story, since it had already been publicly posted by the unfortunate man’s family. Even if the Inquirer had caught the story a bit earlier in its timeline – for example, “Singer Rico Puno has reportedly checked into a hospital with a suspected heart ailment” – that would still not be valid “breaking” news, although it might technically fit part of the definition in the sense that it is a story that has not yet reached a conclusion. Although it might trigger an emotional response among the audience, the news is not disruptive in any practical sense, and it may constitute a violation of the man’s privacy; that, however, is a topic for another time.

To make your stories appear more like credible news and less like sensationalist crap, banish the word “breaking” from your vocabulary.

Taking the High Road: The BAIC BJ20 and M50S

AS recently as about 15 years ago, about the most complimentary reaction any “Chinese car” would elicit was a raised eyebrow. China’s energetic vehicle industry was beginning to make inroads in overseas truck markets, but disastrous abortions like the multiple failed attempts to introduce Chery Motors (one of China’s largest manufacturers) in this and other countries meant that the car brands were viewed with a great deal of understandable skepticism.

Things do change, however, and Chinese manufacturers have been turning out vehicles that can hold their own and then some against better-known but not necessarily better-built models.

Two very good examples are the newest models to be introduced by Bayan Auto, the exclusive distributor of BAIC Motors here in the Philippines: The BAIC BJ20 crossover and the M50S MPV. The two additions to the BAIC lineup were introduced late last month at BAIC Philippines’ flagship showroom in Makati, and will be featured at the upcoming Philippine International Motor Show at the World Trade Center in Pasay from October 24-28.

A brief note on provenance, since the Chinese manufacturers’ perspectives on branding are not quite as orthodox as those in the West or Japan: The BAIC Group (in longhand, the Beijing Automotive Industry Holding Co., Ltd.) is a state-owned firm – it is largely controlled by the Municipal Government of Beijing – and the umbrella to a number of marques. Besides the BAIC brand, other nameplates under the BAIC Group include Senova, BAW, Changhe, Foton, Huansu, Weiwang, and BJEV.

With the exception of Foton, which has a more distinct brand identity by virtue of having been exported the longest, and BJEV, which is a fairly new marque for electric vehicles, the other nameplates are sometimes used almost interchangeably. The M50S MPV, for example, is badged as a Changhe, and depending on the market might appear in a BAIC, Changhe, Weiwang, or Huansu showroom. This might be a little confusing to customers, but on the other hand, is a reassuring indicator of a consistent commitment to quality throughout the whole vast BAIC family. Plus the Changhe badge looks really nice.

The Real-World Test

The best introduction to any new vehicle is to experience it in actual use, so for this review we took the BJ20 and the M50S on a favorite path, that from Manila to Baguio via the NLEX/SCTEX/TPLEX and the Marcos Highway (Kennon Road would have been preferable, but remains closed due to damage from the recent passage of Typhoon Ompong). The route provides a fair sampling of just about every road condition one is likely to encounter here in the Philippines, from city traffic to the expressway to provincial highways to steep, winding mountain roads.

Comparing the two is of course impossible, as they are very different vehicles intended for different customers and purposes. The BJ20 is a compact crossover with a sporty design, while the M50S is a family-friendly transport. Yet there are some attributes the two have in common, all of them complimentary. Build quality in terms of fit and finish is first-rate; from doors and windows, seat fittings, interior and exterior trim, to accessory stowage everything is fit snugly and with attention to fine tolerances. The quality is most noticeable in the absence of certain things: Annoying rattles or vibrations, excessive wind or road noise, noticeable play or tightness in the steering, pedals, or other controls, or ergonomic issues with entering/exiting or riding in the vehicle.

Our extended road test included the luxury version of the BJ20 and the Luxury 8-seater version of the M50S. Complete vehicle specifications for all the variants of the two vehicles are available on the BAIC Philippines website; find the BJ20 here, and the M50S here. MSRP for the two vehicles as tested is P1.288 million for the BJ20, and P638,000 for the M50S.

The M50S compact MPV

I am not as a matter of personal taste a “mini-van” connoisseur, but the category is widely popular and eminently useful to a large segment of the Philippine market, and so any new example deserves a fair and critical assessment.

The M50S is a largely-cosmetic upgrade of the earlier and very successful M20 MPV, and in terms of where it fits into the spectrum of similar vehicles found on Philippine roads, it is somewhat larger than the Toyota Avanza, Suzuki Ertiga, and Honda Mobilio, and a bit smaller than the Toyota Innova or Hyundai Santa Fe. Thanks to the M50S’s tall-cabin geometry, I found it more comfortable than any of those competitors, even in the third row of seats, where I usually find my knees wedged against the back of the seat ahead. The version we tested was an 8-seater, and would probably be comfortable for 8 Asian-sized adults; families with children will find the M50S’s cabin positively spacious.

The M50S is powered by a Mitsubishi-design, 1.5-liter twin-cam gasoline engine (Euro 4 spec, minimum 95 octane fuel) coupled with a 5-speed manual transmission. The powertrain puts out 114 horsepower at 6600 rpm and peak torque of 150 Nm at 4300-4500 rpm according to the published specs.

On the expressway or level roads, the M50S’s performance is positively perky; it runs smoothly through the gears to reach 100+ kph almost effortlessly, and recovers its momentum quickly at those times a downshift from 5th to 4th or even 3rd gear is necessary. On grades, the powertrain naturally works somewhat harder, but the M50S is able to keep up a good pace on a clear road, and is well-balanced and maneuverable – a big plus when one is picking his way through a seemingly endless train of slow-moving trucks making the climb to Baguio.

At its price point the M50S is not loaded with purely luxury features, but is well-equipped and thoughtfully designed for driver and passenger comfort. Some of the more appealing features include the large center dash information display, a footrest to the left of the clutch pedal, 60-40 split second- and third-row seats, and a simple but robust fold-and-tumble system for the third-row seats to open up the spacious rear cargo area.

With similar performance and more comfort than its nearest rivals at a competitive price, the M50S is an excellent value, and a superior option for those shopping for a compact MPV.

The BJ20 Crossover

The “crossover” class of vehicles blurring the lines between cars and SUVs are one of the most popular vehicle segments in the market today, and apparently also one of the most difficult for automakers to get right. In trying to be everything to everyone, they often do not quite satisfy anyone’s demands; good car-like performance is sacrificed for aggressive style (the Toyota FJ is a good example of this), or the result is a reasonably good car under an ill-fitting sporty pelt (the rather goofy-looking and uncomfortable Nissan Juke comes to mind).

The ideal combination of sporty car performance and stylish rugged off-road looks is possible, however, and the BJ20’s attractive price tag puts it in reach of customers who might otherwise settle for a lot less.

The first impression of the BJ20 is that it is a very good-looking vehicle. BAIC has tapped some European design talent to dress this one up, and it shows, but it is not merely an imitator of Western style. Chinese design has always come across as being a bit unbalanced – either too austere or overdone – but BAIC has put together a nice package with the BJ20. The boxy, aggressively SUV-ish exterior is softened a bit by the long wheelbase, an attractive combination of front-end lamps, and a nice combination of complimentary colors on the vehicle trim; the overall effect is sporty, but without looking like a truck.

The bigger surprise is in the interior, which is positively luxurious for a vehicle in this class. Fitted out in black micro leather with touches of brushed silver and carbon fiber trim, the roomy cabin is a stylishly comfortable place to spend a long ride. The luxury version we tested also features a full-length moonroof, which is partly retractable; it is made of UV-resistant polarized glass, so even under the full glare of the midday sun while crossing the Central Luzon lowlands, the cabin did not heat up at all.

Up front, the BJ20 is equipped with a nice control set with a sporty design, the various information displays – a large center monitor, a center cluster display, and a compass/inclinometer nestled between the upper dash air vents – well placed for visibility without distracting one’s attention from the road. The two-spoke, leather-wrapped steering includes the cruise control switches, audio controls, and menu selectors for most of the displays as well.

The BJ20 is powered by a license-built Mitsubishi 4A91T engine, a virtually bulletproof 1.5-liter, twin-cam design that is one of the Japanese giant’s most reliable, and puts out 150 hp and 210 Nm of peak torque. The front-wheel drive (with on-demand 4WD) BJ20 is equipped with a continuously variable transmission (CVT), and a rather nice one at that; gearing changes were completely imperceptible, unlike some CVT versions that are “technically” 5- or 6-speeds in other types of vehicles.

With a moderate load – four adults, and a collection of overnight luggage in the rear cargo area – the BJ20’s performance is positively zippy, which led to the one complaint I had about the vehicle: As a safety feature, the BJ20 is equipped with a speed alarm that is set by default to 100 kph. Anyone who’s ever ridden with me knows that on an open highway I regard 100 kph as just a well-meaning suggestion, which meant that I and my passengers had to endure the insistent beeping of the alarm every few moments as I obliged the BJ20 in its obvious desire to go a bit faster. I have been reliably informed, however, that the speed warning limit can be easily set to the driver’s preference.

Although we did not subject the BJ20 to an honest-to-goodness off-road test – that is not, after all, why most people buy vehicles in the crossover class – the BJ20 handled transitions from good to decidedly less than good roads with ease, and handled just as well on winding grades as it did on the highway. With higher ground clearance than other vehicles its size and competent package of electronic stability, braking, and steering assists, the BJ20 obviously could handle much rougher conditions.

The BJ20 is an attractive, solid performer that holds its own and then some in the competitive crossover market, even without taking the price into consideration, which is very reasonable. For drivers who are looking for economy and reliability without compromising style, comfort, or performance, the BJ20 is definitely worth a try.

Fits right in: The BJ20 showing off its good looks and athletic stance amongst some higher-priced also-rans at the Baguio Country Club. Also, it’s apparently easier to park than an X3.

 

It’s called the South CHINA Sea for a reason

fiery crossTHE decades-long territorial and diplomatic dispute over control of the South China Sea is an issue that is never far from the public’s awareness in the Philippines, and has again emerged as an above-the-fold topic of conversation with the recent “revelation” that China has just about completed work on seven new, impressive-looking military bases in the Spratly Islands. The issue is alarming to Filipinos for several reasons, not the least of which is that the complicated tangle of conflicting claims to the vital maritime territory is very difficult to understand. The extent of the work China has done on its new installations, however, now makes it easy to explain the dispute to people here:

You lost. The South China Sea, at least that part of it subject to conflicting claims by China and the Philippines, now clearly belongs to the former. No cute protests in front of the Chinese Embassy, no whimpering references to “international law,” no impotent threats of force are going to get it back. The arbitral ruling based on an international convention that neither China nor the Philippines fully accepted from the very beginning is not worth the paper it’s printed on, and discussing the matter through “bilateral consultation mechanisms” is utterly pointless, as any discussion must logically proceed from the starting point that China owns the sea and the Philippines doesn’t, since China took the pragmatic step to operationalize its claim and the Philippines didn’t.

And why not? Why would China even entertain the subject at this point? Even a casual reading of history quickly reveals that at no time, ever, did a victor who completely outwitted and outmaneuvered a foe surrender the gains because the loser’s feelings were hurt.

And boy, did China outmaneuver the Philippines on this one. Regardless of how one might feel about China, what it has accomplished is impressive from a strategic and diplomatic perspective. In terms of maritime disputes, the conflict with the Philippines is only one of four that China is actively engaged in; the others are with Vietnam over the Paracel Islands and other areas of the sea farther west, Japan over the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, and Taiwan, which has a claim to parts of both the East China Sea and the South China Sea in addition to the rest of its problematic relationship with the mainland. In recent years, China has aggressively prodded each of these four rivals, but it is only in the area contested with the Philippines that it has decided to dispense with any pretense of flexibility and establish a permanent presence.

The reason why is that when it comes to Japan, Taiwan, and Vietnam, prodding too aggressively – at least for now – risks a legitimate military response. There is a significant American military presence in Japan, but even on its own, Japan has at times in the past several years demonstrated it won’t back away from a fight. Even though China officially considers Taiwan a province that has temporarily gone astray, it sensibly recognizes that the margin between “maintaining effective pressure” and “things getting violently out of hand” is razor thin, and tries to calibrate its strategy accordingly. Vietnam has none of the external support enjoyed by Japan and Taiwan, but Vietnam for centuries has demonstrated an outsized ability to kick China’s ass. That may not actually be the case any longer, but China seems to realize that a) Vietnam clearly doesn’t know that, or doesn’t care, and b) in any incident that escalates into gunfire (which the Vietnamese will probably start), international sentiment towards the South China Sea issue is going to make a noble underdog of the smaller country.

Compared to those three rivals, the Philippines is about as threatening as a bowl of room-temperature tapioca, from the Chinese point of view. The country’s military forces are feeble, and heavy economic dependence on China means the Philippine leadership is extremely diffident when it comes to wielding such weapons as it does have. Furthermore, despite what the people of the Philippines think of themselves, the country does not have much of an international profile, and is unlikely to attract the same level of sympathetic attention as any of the other three rival countries. And all of these factors are aggravated by the Philippines’ apparent inability to act with any semblance of national unity, and not like a banana republic.

Thus for China, the path of least resistance to asserting its sovereign claim over the South China Sea is through the Philippines – or more specifically, through the Spratly Islands. Although it may have been a bit of gamble on China’s part that it would be able to complete its work undisturbed, it paid off. Even if the Philippines wakes up and realizes that the way the other rivals to Chinese ambitions have kept the same thing from happening to them is to display a bit of martial fortitude, it’s too late; China’s new island fortifications probably wouldn’t stand up to the US Seventh Fleet (which, in case anyone here is still wondering, is not coming to your rescue), but they are certainly well-equipped enough to swat away anything the Philippines could throw at them without anyone even breaking a sweat.

So what now? The Duterte administration’s apparent confusion over how to address the situation – vacillating between conciliation and gentle saber-rattling – seems to be borne out of the uncomfortable realization that, as the government in power when the South China Sea was irretrievably lost, it will be blamed for it. But it’s not really Duterte’s fault, and he and his officials are probably doing the best anyone could expect from what few options were left to them by more than a quarter century of foreign policy idiocy. Blame, at any rate, is practically irrelevant at this point; sharing a sea border with China seems to be the new normal for the Philippines, and finding a way to live with that would be a far better use of the time that will inevitably be wasted in otherwise futile chatter and “hearings in aid of legislation.”

The song remains the same at the BoC

duterte-car-crush-2IN a completely unoriginal display of bureaucratic muscle-flexing, the Bureau of Customs last week drove a bulldozer over a couple dozen confiscated luxury cars at the Port of Manila (similar festivities were also held in Davao and Cebu) to “send a message” to would-be smugglers that their efforts to take advantage of the Philippines’ sieve-like borders are in vain, or at least will be, once BoC head Isidro Lapeña “cleans up” the chronically corrupt agency.

While a fairly impressive collection of vehicles (about P61 million worth, according to the BoC) was destroyed, suspiciously missing from the smash-fest were a few extremely high-end cars, including a McLaren, two Lamborghinis, and a Ferrari. Lapeña later explained that those were part of a batch of 22 cars that are still “under litigation,” which makes sense (the consignees have apparently appealed the BoC’s decision to confiscate them), if only he hadn’t exuberantly announced to everyone before the February 6 activities that they would be included.

That rather silly mistake on Lapeña’s part tended to undermine the whole “message” the exercise intended to send, and it led to suspicions that the BoC was being selective in its enforcement efforts, which in turn implies that the Bureau and certain nefarious parties who know how to work the system would eventually profit from it. That is probably not the case, and Lapeña’s explanation was probably honest; Customs seizures involve a legal process, wherein the consignees or owners of goods deemed illicit do get a chance to make their case.

That Lapeña didn’t think to explain that at least in simple terms beforehand suggests that he will be no more successful at “cleaning up Customs” than any of the other Commissioners that have passed through the Bureau’s revolving door in the past 15 years or so. Explaining how the BoC and its processes work might lead to better public appreciation of whatever legitimate efforts are being applied to improve its performance and credibility. Instead, Lapeña – and by extension, his boss – opted for the same tired “hey, look, we’re actually doing something” display that has been a part of the bureaucratic repertoire for years: Make of show of “getting tough on smuggling,” make it something that looks good on TV and impresses the peons,

furniture

To be fair to the BoC chief, giving every appearance of being mere window-dressing despite desperately wanting to be taken seriously is not a cross he has to bear alone in this administration.

and then it’s back to business as usual, which no one will realize until the next big scandal blows up.

There is nothing wrong with destroying smuggled cars; Duterte’s practical reason for ordering the BoC to dispose of them in spectacular fashion – that auctioning them off risked putting the contraband into the hands of its intended recipients anyway – was sensible. And besides, subjecting that fine collection of automobiles to the Philippines’ badly designed and poorly maintained roads, overcrowded as they are with appallingly bad drivers, would be a mortal affront to the engineering and design skill and effort that went into their manufacture.

But as a signal of sincere intentions to reform the government’s most corrupt agency, the car-crushing event was an utter failure; Lapeña signaled instead that he means to somehow obtain a better result while still following the same futile script as his many predecessors, which means he will just as surely fail. He is already Duterte’s second BoC chief, and almost certainly won’t be the last; Duterte’s immediate predecessor Bobo the Simpleminded had four, and Gloria Arroyo appointed six in her nine years in office.

The record of failure of would-be “reformers” when it comes to the BoC might suggest that the institution is irredeemable, but one would also assume that President Duterte and whoever he appoints to attempt to clean up the mess would not willingly accept that, and the people of the Philippines certainly should not. But if the BoC is going to undergo a meaningful transformation, the leadership is going to have to approach the problem in a radically different way, one that unfortunately could very well impinge on ordinary citizens in some uncomfortable ways.

While P61 million in smuggled automobiles sounds impressive, it pales in comparison to the volume of other technically illicit goods that pour into the country on a daily basis. Automotive parts, for instance, are an enormous market; the vast majority the country’s jeepneys and the so-called “owner type” scratch-built vehicles on the country’s roads are rolling around on engines and transmissions that were bought as scrap elsewhere, assessed Philippine customs duties appropriate for garbage, and then miraculously resurrected as functioning consumer goods. The same is true of virtually every item found in the country’s now-ubiquitous “Japan Surplus” stores. Every tiangge and second-rate mall in the Philippines is filled with a huge variety of other kinds of smuggled goods, some brought in through the many loopholes a good operator knows how to exploit, and some completely clandestine.

Plugging all those leaks, however, is an enormous challenge; the BoC has always been fairly candid about acknowledging the leaks exist, but has consistently and probably truthfully pleaded helplessness to do much to stop them due to shortages in manpower and resources. What is left unsaid is that addressing the larger problem is an unattractive option because of the disruption it would cause; thousands of small businesses would die, and a large amount of affordable consumer goods would disappear. By contrast, focusing instead on the occasional publicity-worthy seizure hurts almost no one.

Draining the Bureau of Custom’s swamp can be done. But so far, even under the carefully created tough-talking atmosphere of the Duterte administration, a Customs chief and management team with the cojones to actually do it has yet to emerge.

And just like that, space is suddenly cool again

Heavy Metal

Who knew? Heavy Metal was not just the most awesome magazine of the late 70s-early 80s, it was PROPHECY.

WE needed that. America needed that. The entire generation of us who grew up in the Apollo Era and have wondered ever since how the stunning technological promise of that age fizzled away into a legacy that was lame and uninspiring by comparison needed that.

Right now (with one particularly gorgeous exception) Elon Musk is the person in the world I’d most like to have dinner with.

Dude shot his frickin’ car into orbit around the Sun.

On Tuesday, Musk’s SpaceX finally launched its long-delayed Falcon Heavy rocket – at the moment, the world’s most powerful launch vehicle – on its first test flight. While the flight was actually not a complete success, it was close enough. More than that, it was an absolute tour de force in showmanship and public relations.

From a commercial standpoint, SpaceX probably doesn’t really need much in the way of sentimental public support; the company launched 18 of its Falcon 9 rockets for various customers last year, and will probably take away the market leadership of Europe’s Arianespace this year. But there are more significant reasons why the uber-cool show it put on this week was important.

Even though NASA has had some spectacular achievements since the brief, exciting years of the Moon landings – it has, among other things, sent a space probe beyond the Solar System, landed on and sent back video from the surface of one of Saturn’s moons, visited Pluto, and positively littered the surface of Mars with little robot cars – it seemed to have lost its ability to inspire. Space became boring. Even the Space Shuttle, which was an amazing piece of technology, was somehow boring. Yes, it was all very well that we were exploring the Solar System, and could routinely send people into space in a reusable ship, but there was no dash, no thrill to it – little to inspire anyone but diehard science buffs to pay rapt attention to what was being done, and accept it as absolutely vital to the betterment of the species that it be done.

It was different in the Apollo Era; the whole endeavor combined a certain hip élan with a sense of urgency, and made ordinary people feel something. It probably helped that there was clear rival in the equally energetic (but far less successful, although they had their moments) Soviet Union, and it certainly helped that the weapon of choice to take on the challenge of space in general and walking all over the Moon like we owned the place in particular was the biggest damn rocket anyone has ever seen. Since then, we’ve been treated to smaller and more economical missions. “Remote exploration.” Oh look, some guy is growing ferns in zero-gravity on the space station. That’s so cute. And so utterly forgettable. Whatever happened to the square-jawed, crewcut studs who’d put down their drink, throw on a jacket, climb into a tin can no bigger than a phone booth on top a 36-story tall monster with all the fires of hell coming out of the back end of it, and go practice golf on the Moon?

They faded away, until Elon Musk and the several hundred screaming geniuses (the sheer joy of the SpaceX staff at the successful launch and flight of the product of their hard work was infectious) who work for him brought their spirit back all at once on Tuesday. The Falcon Heavy’s reusable boosters sticking a perfectly synchronized landing was an almost unbelievable sight, until everyone saw this:

last-starman

One way ticket to midnight.

When people are inspired, riveted by a display of technology such as SpaceX put on the other day, things change for the better. A kid somewhere won’t be able to get the image of “Starman” wheeling through the Universe out of his head, and goes on to become a gifted engineer. Researchers at a university somewhere suddenly realize that building and sending their own probe into space is actually feasible. A poor country with lousy internet service sees getting its own satellite into orbit as a legitimate possibility. Entrepreneurs see the success of another private company in space, and begin thinking of ways to join the party – which eventually leads to many of the challenges of deep-space exploration and colonization being solved.

Elon Musk and SpaceX gave us back a possible future many in my generation felt bureaucracy and budget constraints and ignorant politics had taken away after the last man left the Moon. The future may yet disappoint us; but being able to feel, at least for a little while, that maybe, just maybe, it might not, is a blessing in otherwise dreary times.