American couple killed in Tajikistan

An American couple, understandably bored by their day jobs in Washington DC, take off on a rugged biking journey around the world. On a remote highway in Tajikistan, they along with two European cyclists are killed by what appear to be Islamic State sympathizers:

A grainy cellphone clip recorded by a driver shows what happened next: The men’s Daewoo sedan passes the cyclists and then makes a sharp U-turn. It doubles back, and aims directly for the bikers, ramming into them and lurching over their fallen forms. In all, four people were killed: Mr. Austin, Ms. Geoghegan and cyclists from Switzerland and the Netherlands.

Two days later, the Islamic State released a video showing five men it identified as the attackers, sitting before the ISIS flag. They face the camera and make a vow: to kill “disbelievers.”

Dramatic but rare events like these tend to vastly inflate the dangers of overseas travel in the public mind. Contrary to what you might think, despite a heavy terrorist presence across the border in northern Afghanistan, Tajikistan is generally considered safe for Western travelers. This seems ridiculous, until you consider that according to State Department data, only one US citizen died in Tajikistan – of drowning – from October 2002 to December 2017. After the latest incident, however, the State Department raised its travel advisory for Tajikistan to Level 2 (“Exercise increased caution”).

So, if you have a hankering to visit landlocked Central Asian republics, there’s no need to scratch Tajikistan from your bucket list. Just please don’t explore it on a freakin’ bike.

Two aspects of this story annoy me. First, this guy appears to have dragged his girlfriend into a dangerous lifestyle that she probably would not have otherwise chosen. According to the article:

It was in 2016 that Ms. Geoghegan told [her close friend] Ms. Kerrigan that she was planning to quit her job and bike around the world. Ms. Kerrigan could not suppress a little concern. “I said, ‘This is not the Lauren I know,’ ” she said, adding: “Jay changed the trajectory of Lauren’s life.” […]

“She was concerned for her friend, in part because of how bighearted she was and in part because she feared that Mr. Austin had a higher tolerance for danger than Ms. Geoghegan did.”

It’s one thing to throw your own life away, but roping someone else into your lethal adventure is a different universe of bad. I am reminded of Amie Huguenard, who followed Timothy Treadwell into the Alaskan wilderness, only to share his fate of being killed and eaten by a grizzly bear.

Second, I find it seriously alarming that this guy expected the rest of the world to help him and his girlfriend out of their self-imposed crises:

It was July 23, 2017 — winter in South Africa, when the sun sets at 5:30 — and they hadn’t realized how far they would need to travel on congested freeways before they could get out of Cape Town. At dusk, they found themselves with a punctured tire on the chaotic R27. There was nowhere to pitch their tent except for a ditch adjacent to the busy freeway.

In a post about why he chose to cycle — as opposed to, say, drive around the world — Mr. Austin spoke about the vulnerability of being on a bike. “With that vulnerability comes immense generosity: good folks who will recognize your helplessness and recognize that you need assistance in one form or another and offer it in spades,” he wrote.

This attitude strikes me as not only remarkably naive, but also morally questionable. Hospitality to strangers is baked into the culture in many parts of the world. For pampered Americans to take advantage of that, by deliberately putting themselves in dangerous situations from which strangers are expected to rescue them, seems selfish at best.

In the middle of the night, a security guard patrolling the grounds of a nearby nuclear plant spotted their tent. He radioed for help and arranged for a truck to drive them across the city to a campsite. Their journey was a series of tedious, and occasionally grueling, physical tests, punctuated by human kindness.

Bad decisions are often linked to philosophical confusion. It’s almost cruel to reference the first two paragraphs of this April blog post by Austin, but people need to understand that evil does exist, and it is not rare.

Daily links: Geopolitics and Tom Cruise

US teams up with Japan and Australia to invest in Asian infrastructure projects. China’s Belt and Road Initiative has competition.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announces $113 million in new technology, energy and infrastructure projects in emerging Asia as part of Trump’s “Indo-Pacific” strategy.

Generals from the rival Koreas meet at the border to ease military tensions.

But there’s still a long and difficult road ahead with North Korea. “Washington and Pyongyang, however, are not the only players. Racing against a clock of its own, Seoul will aim to drive Trump and Kim toward an early trilateral summit to declare an end to the Korean War as a first step toward peace, fueled by President Moon Jae-in’s determination to go down in history as the peacemaker.”

Professor Stephen Cohen points out that in early 1986, President Ronald Reagan met alone with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev for about two and a half hours, during which they discussed abolishing nuclear weapons, paving the way for the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty which was signed a year later.

Behind-the-scenes on Tom Cruise’s HALO jump from a C-17 military aircraft at 25,000 feet for the latest Mission: Impossible movie. HALO means high altitude, low open (i.e. the parachute is deployed at below 2,000 feet).

Reminds me of this incredible scene from Moonraker.

Tom Cruise is “our last remaining movie star.”

Cambodia Daily closing

Statement by The Cambodia Daily, one of Cambodia’s three main English-language newspapers:

The power to tax is the power to destroy. And after 24 years and 15 days, the Cambodian government has destroyed The Cambodia Daily, a special and singular part of Cambodia’s free press.

As a result of extra-legal threats by the government to close the Daily, freeze its accounts and prosecute the new owner for the actions of the previous owner, The Bernard Krisher Jimusho Co. is unable to operate The Cambodia Daily newspaper and it will cease publication as of September 4, 2017.

From a New York Times account:

For the reporters and editors of The Cambodia Daily, an independent newspaper, Sunday was the end of an era as they prepared its final edition after 24 years in operation. […]

The Daily was ordered by the government to close its doors by Monday over allegations that it had not paid millions of dollars in taxes. The newspaper will publish its last print edition on Monday morning.

Seems ominous in context:

In recent weeks, the government of Prime Minister Hun Sen has ordered at least 15 radio stations to close or stop broadcasting programming from the Voice of America and Radio Free Asia. The government also ordered the expulsion of the National Democratic Institute, a pro-democracy, nonprofit organization tied to the Democratic Party of the United States.

I can’t claim to have read The Daily, but this echoes what I’ve heard from others with direct knowledge:

Since its founding in 1993, the widely respected newspaper has been an incubator for a generation of young Cambodian and foreign journalists, and it has served as an independent voice in a country with little tradition of free expression.

Of course, the closure of the newspaper is very unfortunate for the editorial staff of 17 Cambodians and 17 foreigners, many of whom I’m sure are very dedicated to their jobs – especially the locals, who can’t simply pack their bags and skip town if they run afoul of the government. I wish them well.

However, I must say that the following fact (interestingly omitted by The Daily in its statement) gave me pause for thought:

Operating under the king’s sponsorship, Mr. Krisher [the founder] never registered the newspaper as a business or nonprofit organization.

But the newspaper’s association with royalty has long since faded. King Sihanouk abdicated in 2004 and died in 2012. And Mr. Krisher, 86, who lives in Tokyo, is too ill to come to Cambodia to try to rescue the paper, said Douglas Steele, his son-in-law and The Daily’s general manager.

Mr. Krisher’s daughter, Deborah Krisher-Steele, tried to normalize the business this year. Ms. Krisher-Steele purchased The Daily’s assets from her father in April and will return them, the paper said.

Wait, so the newspaper operated for over 23 years as a non-registered entity? Did I get that right? The Daily was not even a legal business, at a time when it employed 34 editorial staff?

Imagine trying that in the US. The IRS would be far from amused.

Now, I am not up on the Cambodian legal system, and I can’t pretend to understand all the nuances of this case. Also, it is disturbing that Deborah Krisher-Steele’s husband, who is the legal representative of the newspaper’s owner in Phnom Penh, has reportedly been barred from leaving the country (Deborah is in Japan).

The lesson I take from this is that a business dependent for its survival on the whims of a king is inherently fragile, especially after that king’s death.

Freedom of the press is important, but so is covering your bases. Unless I am missing something, The Daily left itself wide open to this type of takedown.

20 years later

Hong Kong was handed over to the People’s Republic of China 20 years ago (July 1, 1997). This has occasioned much commentary among China-watchers. The NY Times ran a good piece by Keith Bradsher marking the anniversary:

When Hong Kong returned to Chinese rule two decades ago, the city was seen as a model of what China might one day become: prosperous, modern, international, with the broad protections of the rule of law.

There was anxiety about how such a place could survive in authoritarian China. But even after Beijing began encroaching on this former British colony’s freedoms, its reputation as one of the best-managed cities in Asia endured.

The trains ran on time. Crime and taxes were low. The skyline dazzled with ever taller buildings.

Those are still true. Yet as the 20th anniversary of the handover approaches on Saturday, the perception of Hong Kong as something special — a vibrant crossroads of East and West that China may want to emulate — is fading fast.

Never-ending disputes between the city’s Beijing-backed leadership and the pro-democracy opposition have crippled the government’s ability to make difficult decisions and complete important construction projects.

Caught between rival modes of rule — Beijing’s dictates and the demands of local residents — the authorities have allowed problems to fester, including an affordable-housing crisis, a troubled education system and a delayed high-speed rail line.

Many say the fight over Hong Kong’s political future has paralyzed it, and perhaps doomed it to decline. As a result, the city is increasingly held up not as a model of China’s future but as a cautionary tale — for Beijing and its allies, of the perils of democracy, and for the opposition, of the perils of authoritarianism.

Hong Kong is still an incredible place, but my own sense is that the city is locked in terminal decline, for the reasons Bradsher talks about. This chart is relevant:

Of course, it was both inevitable and desirable that Hong Kong would lose some of its relative economic clout as mainland China built itself up into the world’s second-largest economy. But the mainland’s newfound wealth also allows China to assert control over Hong Kong by buying everything in it. And the city’s liberties are gradually being stripped away as its new overlords wield an increasingly heavy hand.

It’s not really surprising, and there’s nothing the rest of the world can do about it. But there it is. Anyway, here are some photos I’ve taken in Hong Kong over the years:

India more populous than China?

China may have 1.29 billion people, rather than the official figure of 1.38 billion

You know your country is big when the official population figure may plausibly be off by 90 million people:

India may already have overtaken China as the world’s most populous country, according to research by an independent Chinese demographer.

Yi Fuxian, a scientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said Chinese officials had overestimated the number of births between 1990 and 2016 by almost 90m.

He attributed the alleged error partly to an overly optimistic fertility rate figure. China’s fertility rate was estimated at 1.6 children per woman in 2015, while Mr Yi believes it could be as low as 1.05.

If Mr Yi is correct, China’s population at the end of last year was 1.29bn, compared to the government’s official figure of 1.38bn. India’s population is officially estimated at 1.33bn.