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By PISA Staff Assistant, Leeann Ji

In recent years, China has made headlines with its economic growth and prowess. Before the late 1970s, however, China remained a predominately closed economy ruled by a communist government. China’s emergence as a communist nation took place during the Cold War, with China maintaining an important role in both the U.S. and Soviet Union’s foreign policy. During the Cold War, the global ideological divide between communism and democracy transformed Chinese society, with a lasting legacy that is still being felt in the country – and around the world – today.

As the Cold War began, the U.S. chose to support the Kuomintang (KMT) and General Chiang Kai-shek’s claim to China and drive out the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) led by Mao Zedong. After decades of civil war against the nationalist and democratic KMT, Mao proclaimed the founding of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) on October 1, 1949 while Chiang Kai-shek and his followers fled to Taiwan to establish the Republic of China (ROC). The U.S. continued its support for the KMT following the 1949 Chinese Communist Revolution, and the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950 severed any hopes of U.S. ties with the CCP. Until the 1970’s, the U.S. recognized Taiwan as the only legitimate China, and it was Taiwan that held the Chinese seat in the United Nations.

While Taiwan received U.S. support, the PRC sought to create a communist utopia under Mao. In 1958, Mao announced a five-year plan to increase agricultural production and output by collectivizing farms and communities in what became known as the Great Leap Forward. Due to his government’s unrealistic expectations for agricultural output and productivity, the plan resulted in the loss of millions of lives due to starvation and famine, and it was abandoned after three years. Eight years later in 1966, Mao embarked on another plan to revolutionize and unify the country in order to solidify support for the CCP, which began experiencing dissent due to the failure of the Great Leap Forward. The Cultural Revolution, unlike its predecessor, had a political and social focus that made Mao and communism central figures in the lives of Chinese citizens. Mao cemented his legitimacy as leader amongst other officials by making himself the central pillar of the Cultural Revolution that Chinese citizens strove to emulate. Though the Cultural Revolution caused chaos in Chinese communities, schools, and families, it effectively achieved its goal of helping Mao reassert control over the people.

The Cultural Revolution ended with Mao’s death in 1976, but its legacy has persisted throughout the decades that followed. While economic reforms in 1978 opened China to foreign investment, communism still permeated politics and society. Today, Mao’s Mausoleum is a national landmark, and it sits facing towards Mao’s massive portrait hanging on the Tiananmen gate of the Forbidden City — the heart of Beijing. While China has progressed socially and economically due to a swell in civil society and fiscal reforms, the CCP still maintains an iron grip on Chinese politics and daily life.

By Maggie Nelsen, PISA Program Assistant, Sep. 22nd

As Americans across the country unify in support of the many people affected by Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, fewer people are discussing the bigger problems at play in the background of these disasters: governance management, social inequality, and climate change.  This hurricane season is being reported as unprecedented in both the scale of the storms and their ensuing impact. Harvey and Irma have successfully garnered national attention and alarm over increasing severity and frequency of climatological events in the future. And more recently, the devastating impact of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico. But despite these events, public concern typically dissipates back into oblivion after storms pass. How can the country translate its non-partisan, but fleeting compassion over these disasters to long-term concern and willingness to undertake systemic issues much greater than the storms themselves? The severity of this hurricane season can serve as an opportunity to broaden public consciousness over the global phenomena of disasters with escalating magnitude and impact. Harvey, Irma, and Maria are reminders of a shared climate challenge by all, which becomes more critical every year.

Inconsistencies in media coverage of Harvey and Irma are worth discussing. Harvey and Irma’s destruction in the American South pales in comparison to its impact just beyond our borders in eleven Caribbean island countries and territories. Barbuda took a direct hit from Irma, likely the worst hit nation with 1,400 people homeless and 95% of the island decimated. While reports of hurricane destruction in the Caribbean blanketed American media before the storms reached the US mainland, once Irma tore into Florida, media ceased its reporting on the continuous suffering across several Caribbean states.  In researching for this blog piece, I could not find current statistics summarizing the hurricane’s impact in the Caribbean; updated assessments of the Caribbean impact remained dated from before Irma’s landfall in the US. I imagine the same media coverage scenario will occur for Hurricane Maria’s landfall in Puerto Rico. Now, initial reportage of the immediate devastation in Puerto Rica is strong, describing the island’s total blackout, intense flooding, and lack of public communication channels. But a week and half from now, Puerto Ricans will continue to suffer while the media and the public turn their attention on to the next current event. Differences in reporting on natural disaster events persist on the global scale as well.

The disparity between the U.S. and the Caribbean in capacity to respond and recover from hurricane destruction is also undiscussed in the media. While FEMA is fraught with its issues, and the U.S. government response leaves much to be desired, there exists a tremendous non-profit infrastructure to support and oftentimes supplant government relief in the US. Our smaller Caribbean neighbors, island countries, have nowhere to evacuate and lack the resources to provide adequate assistance in recovery efforts. Scale up this disparity on a global level, to the natural disaster impacts endured in Asia, and consider the even greater inequality in capacity. As Americans reflect on the damage and hardship felt by hundreds of people in Florida, Texas, and the often-forgotten Caribbean, we can likewise be reminded of the similar, but greater plights tens of thousands of people face across Asia.

Several sub-regions in Asia experience near total devastation almost annually because of catastrophic environmental events. Yet, media coverage over the new reality of climate-induced natural disasters is scarce. In this year alone, 41 million people in Asia were affected by environmental catastrophes. Major transboundary floods inundated huge areas of territory in India, Bangladesh, and China this summer, amounting to 1,200 deaths. Harvey took 70 lives in the US, and Irma left 12 people dead. Many Americans and even more Caribbean island inhabitants now face homelessness or insurmountable costs to repair their homes and businesses. The long-term Harvey-Irma recovery process, especially in the Caribbean, is not to be discounted. However, the magnitude of devastation and desolation in Asia is incomparable. The entire world is undergoing an unprecedented climate shift; but the acute degree to which Asians are experiencing subsequent environmental repercussions of this shift, warrants greater attention.

In this day and age, few other global events are capable of connecting the world in solidarity. The outpouring of donations, volunteers, and dispatch of social workers from far and wide is a powerful testament to our shared humanity. Recent events can help expand our awareness of the magnitude of human suffering due to environmental disaster just over the border and on the other side of the world. From Texans and Floridians, to those afflicted more recently in Mexico and Puerto Rico, all deserve the same attention and support. Despite the miles that separate us, we share profound common experiences. We can care about one and all, and do something about it too.

Reconciling ongoing Korean War trauma, volatile U.S. relations and current events, amid a growing hunger epidemic among the North Korean people

By Maggie Nelsen, PISA Program Assistant, June 16th

June 13th, 2017, Partnerships for International Strategies in Asia (PISA), George Washington University’s Institute for Korean Studies, the American Friends Service Committee, and the Korea Peace Network hosted a day-long program considering how to forge “Paths to Building Peace with North Korea”. The event could not have been more timely. The overall theme of the day focused on shifting US foreign policy “off-ramps to war” and working towards diplomatic relations with a humanitarian assistance focus. Only half-way through 2017, North Korea and the U.S. are already on a collision course for the most likely military showdown in years. Unprecedented new leadership in the U.S. decidedly swerving away from previous administration’s approach to North Korea has many in Washington and around the world on edge over imminent confrontation between the two countries.

The program’s distinguished panelists and keynote speakers from various fields and direct experiences generated a dynamic discussion about the North Korean regime, its global interests, economic welfare, people of the country, and shared history with the U.S. The event, hosted at the Elliott School, occurred the very same day North Korea released a young American, Otto Warmbier, who was imprisoned for over a year.  At first, news of his release provided timely validation for the idea and feasibility of peace in North Korea. In a program about deescalating tensions and eventually moving towards normalizing relations, the initial announcement of Warmbier’s release brought a new element to an already complex discussion among presenters.

The day’s first keynote speaker and panel provided a historical lens to the prospect of peace, integral to understanding contemporary issues in the Korean peninsula and Korean-U.S. politics. Bruce Cumings offered an insightful overview of diplomatic history in the past 10-20 years between the U.S. and North Korea. Both keynote speakers of the day in fact, reflected on the historical trajectory of U.S.-DPRK relations amounting to isolated moments of hope or success that could not be sustained across multiple U.S. administrations. This lack of continuity from administration to administration, led to scattered U.S. attempts with North Korea that never evolved into a clear U.S. strategy.

As the morning continued, participants heard an in-depth account of the largely unrecognized reality of ongoing Korean War trauma amongst Americans, South, and North Koreans. Panelists from varied backgrounds found commonality in the unending repercussions of the Korean War: tragically separated families, soldiers still MIA, POWs who never returned, and unknown Korean War remains between the DPRK, US, and ROK. With bodies that were never recovered and families that were never reunited, this is a war that continues to resonate in a tangible and concrete ways. For thousands of people, their suffering is ongoing for more than sixty years. Gaining closure and healing the legacies of the Korean War is surely an essential step to building cooperation, stability, and ultimate peace in the peninsula.

Preeminent keynote speaker, former U.S. Secretary of Defense, William J. Perry, offered a brief, but decisive commentary and judgement over the current dangerous state of the DPKR-U.S. relationship. A key player amongst a small team of analysts during the Cuban Missile Crisis, Secretary Perry knows better than anyone the very real threat and grave magnitude of being on the brink of nuclear war; he believes the U.S. and North Korea are now on a path to nothing less than that. While Secretary Perry recognizes stopping North Korea from continuing nuclear testing is an ambitious goal, he is confident that there is a sincere opportunity for resolving the nuclear issue, and relations with North Korea do not have to be a lost cause. Contrary to popular belief, Perry emphasized that North Korea “is not crazy” and is in fact, ‘rational’. But, in order to move to a better place with North Korea, the United States must begin to listen to DPRK in earnest; six party talks have gotten the U.S. nowhere. Perry stated the U.S. and South Korea can help create “an environment where the North recognizes the possibility of normalization without having to threaten other nations”.

As the details surrounding Warmbier’s release unfolded this week, the context of his homecoming became increasingly sinister. While Warmbier’s medical state holds disturbing implications for what happened to him during his imprisonment, his sole release—while three other Americans remain detained—perhaps indicates calculated and strategic thinking of DPRK leader, Kim Jong-un. Warmbier’s coma decreases the likelihood of constructive interactions between the U.S. and North Korea in the immediate future. However, his release does indicate, as many media reports suggest, that Kim Jong-un does not want an American dying on his soil. This presumption alone reveals a great deal: Kim Jong-un would never want to completely burn all bridges between Pyongyang and Washington.


Secretary William J. Perry PISA, 2017

The final group of panelists of the day offered a seemingly apolitical approach to engagement with North Korea—humanitarian aid. Some might be surprised to learn that there is in fact a significant Western—including American—humanitarian presence in North Korea. Panelists representing the UN and other respective aid NGOs discussed the impactful development work of their organizations in the agricultural sector, while also shedding light on a widely ignored hunger crisis in North Korea. The panelists focused mainly on their inroads in providing greater nutrition, female empowerment, jobs, and agricultural innovations. But the larger idea here was how these contributions—and aid in general—can influence local population and trail blaze for informal diplomatic relations between the U.S. and North Korea.

Presenters made the careful distinction between human rights work and humanitarian aid work. While both share a common goal of helping the Korean people, organizations have different approaches to going about it. It is important the international community understand this distinction, wherein aid work is not compromised or halted in the event of push-back against parallel human right activities. The continuation of successful development projects in North Korea is already a precarious endeavor, but is also further compounded by huge proposed budget cuts to foreign aid under the new U.S. administration. Moreover, U.S. long-standing and increased economic sanctions on North Korea also negate the work of development programs and winning the hearts and minds of everyday North Koreans. While humanitarian operations face many challenges, aid just might be the U.S.’s best bet to cultivating connection and cooperation, fostering peace and trust, and eventually to building real diplomatic dialogue in the future.

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Linda Lewis discusses how innovative rice trays increase productivity by 15%, PISA, 2017

As the event came to a close, audience members were left with a deeper appreciation for the many inter-woven issues involved in building peace with North Korea. As one attendee described, the event was ‘intense’. PISA and its co-sponsors were honored to convene a gathering of thoughtful leaders and experts from diverse backgrounds. The program was ultimately able to offer a comprehensive and holistic framework for examining how to work with North Korea—and not against it or in rival of it. Identifying the many challenges, in turn reveals the many different solutions for building peace on the peninsula. The takeaways and themes from the day’s discussions and observations will no doubt stay relevant, given the anticipation of new South Korean President Moon’s official visit to the White House later this month. Yesterday, President Moon, announced his country’s willingness to re-open engagement with North Korea on the 17th anniversary of the June 15th Joint Declaration. The program, coupled with this week’s news, engendered a mixture of hope and apprehension for the future. But perhaps President Moon sums it up best as he says, “crisis is an opportunity”.

On April 10, 2017, Dr. Zhifei Li, Associate Research Fellow from the National Institute of International Strategy at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) gave a presentation at the Sigur Center on China’s role and response in the hydropolitics of the Lancang-Mekong River.

 By Leeann Ji, PISA Staff Assistant, April 10th

The Lancang River feeds into the Mekong River through the Yunnan Province of Southern China and flows into the downstream countries of Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam where more than 30 million people depend on this river for food, water, irrigation, transport, and power. Hydropolitics have become a primary point of both contention and cooperation in the region as China becomes increasingly involved in dam building on the Mekong River. Dr. Zhifei Li presented on China’s role in the Lancang-Mekong River disputes and shared with us her thoughts on the future of Asian hydropolitics.

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Map of the Lancang-Mekong River (WWF)

In the last decade, China has taken a more cautious approach to dam building because it now feels an obligation to play a leading role as an upstream country in sustainably developing the Lancang-Mekong River. Downstream countries have become increasingly concerned with China’s damming of the Lancang-Mekong River, and they have accused China of using too much water. In 2016, Vietnam’s Mekong Delta suffered its worst drought in nearly a century, which prompted China to release water flow from its dams in the Yunnan Province. On March 23, 2016, leaders from the 6 Mekong River basin countries gathered in China to inaugurate the first meeting of the Lancang-Mekong River Cooperation (LMC). The LMC seeks to foster cooperation between the six basin countries over the sustainable development of the Mekong. When asked about China’s role in the LMC, Dr. Li optimistically notes that, “China will take on a leadership role while also considering the other 5 basin countries as equals.”


Leaders from the 6 basin countries at the first LMC meeting (MRC)

While China has taken the leading role in establishing dialogue over the Lancang-Mekong River’s development, it has also pursued bilateral data sharing and navigation agreements with the other basin countries. After hearing Dr. Li’s presentation on China’s involvement in the Lancang-Mekong River, PISA asks our followers to consider the following questions on what the future holds for Asian hydropolitics:

Will the tense relations between China and Vietnam over maritime territory in the South China Sea influence the negotiations over claims to the Lancang-Mekong River?

In recent years, China has increased its role of engagement in Asian affairs as seen with its ‘One Belt, One Road’ initiative. While it has affirmed its commitment to equal cooperation between all members of the LMC, will China’s sheer economic and political power supersede the other countries’ interests?

Ensuring water security and environmental protection in the Lancang-Mekong River Basin should be a humanitarian issue since many would argue that water exists as an inalienable human right. What impact do you think a Chinese leadership role in the LMC would have on management of the river basin?

At PISA, we encourage our followers to seek sustainable solutions to contentious issues. . With climate change and development increasing water scarcity around the world, water security has become more salient and dire. In her presentation, Dr. Li provided us with a hopeful view of China’s cooperation with the five basin countries over the sustainable development of the Lancang-Mekong River.

Bangladesh 3 - Development Planning Unit University College London

By Leeann Ji, PISA Staff Assistant, March 22nd, 2017

In 1993, the United Nations General Assembly designated March 22 as “World Water Day”, a day dedicated to initiating dialogue over the global water crisis. While this year the focus is on wastewater, it is important for the world to continue to address the issues surrounding access to clean water and water security. As the lifeline of humanity, water is a sacred resource, but it is finite. It is imperative that governments and society recognize and take action to ameliorate the current shortage in the global water supply, which threatens national security and our very existence.

About 1 out of 9 people in the world lack access to safe water. Using contaminated water sources gives rise to various preventable diseases that often lead to death; it is estimated that about 3.5 million people die every year due to inadequate water supply. This can be attributed to the improper treatment of wastewater and most importantly, climate change. As global temperatures rise, so do natural disasters: dry regions become drier, wet regions become wetter.Droughts and floods deal catastrophic blows to societies and to agriculture, and international cooperation to combat climate change could help to alleviate natural disasters. The Paris Agreement (COP21) and the Sustainable Development Goals are landmark international agreements that demand the full-cooperation of signatory states in order to successfully protect the environment and the global water supply. As one of the top emitters of pollutionand a signatory to the Paris Agreement, the United States has a moral and legal obligation to uphold its promise to tackle climate change. Regardless of the political decisions made by the government, it is vital for US citizens to carry on the fight against climate change.

The longer water security and climate change are ignored, the more irreversible the damage becomes. When thinking about the global water crisis this year on World Water Day, PISA asks our followers to consider sustainable solutions to the following questions:

Around the world, women and girls spend long hours fetching water for their homes, which has contributed in decreasing girls’ school attendance. How can an improvement in the water supply directly correlate with the empowerment of women and girls?

More and more regions are pegged to become inhabitable due to climate change and decreasing water supplies. How can national governments and the global community address potential migration patterns created by environmental issues?

Many nations do not have the resources to enact effective, sustainable solutions to increasing access to clean water. What can nations rich in these resources do to help bring clean water to affected areas?

As an organization dedicated to finding sustainable solutions to global issues, PISA believes in the importance of ensuring clean water access to communities around the world. Our Climate Change Initiative included our 2013 Myanmar Leadership Institute on Climate Change (MLICC), which trained government officials in sustainable solutions for preserving the environment and combating climate change. While we celebrate World Water Day today, PISA thinks about how our organization can further contribute efforts to clean water access and water security around the world — and we encourage you to do so, too.


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Women attend PISA’s 2014 Myanmar Advanced Leadership Institute on Climate Change (MALICC) in Washington, D.C.

By Leeann Ji, PISA Staff Assistant, March 8th, 2017

As the world becomes increasingly intertwined through trade and politics, the international community has come together to address important global issues such as gender inequality. Every year on March 8 for International Women’s Day, the world commemorates the achievements of women in various disciplinary fields and occupations from around the world. While celebration stands at the forefront of International Women’s Day, this holiday also serves to bring to light issues that continue to face women today. Since the first International Women’s Day in 1909, women’s rights have progressed exponentially, but many communities around the world still have a ways to go.

Every year, the World Economic Forum releases a Global Gender Gap Reportwith infographics to show progression towards gender equality. While the progress made in 2016 should not be discounted, it is important to reflect and consider current policies hindering women’s development in the workplace, in society, and in politics. The present global, political climate has posed threats to the development of women’s rights and equality around the world, and the U.S. presidential administration has neglected to prioritize domestic and international women’s rights on its agenda. As a global hegemon in trade and social development, it is imperative that the U.S. upholds values of gender equality and development because failure in supporting women’s development overseas poses a direct threat to national security.

Currently, women around the world encounter a variety of socioeconomic and health-related issues. For this year’s International Women’s Day, PISA asks our followers and readers to contemplate issues facing women today.

Has the advancement of women in politics improved or regressed with globalization? How can we ensure that women’s voices are being heard and represented in government?

What are the current obstacles facing women’s reproductive health around the world? How can we overcome those obstacles?

As the international community grapples with the consequences of climate change, how does global warming directly affect women’s rights and equality?

Why is international cooperation in women’s empowerment and development important? What can developed nations do to help promote women in less-developed nations with wider gender equality gaps?

These questions are important to consider as the international community works to achieve the seventeen 2030 Sustainable Development Goals. Women around the world exist as an untapped reservoir of talent and innovation, and the advancement of their voices and rights should be at the forefront of the international agenda. At PISA, we believe in the advancement of women leaders, and our dedication to forging valuable relationships with partners in Asia has encompassed leadership training for Asian women. For this year’s International Women’s Day, PISA celebrates the landmark achievements made by women around the world and thinks about how our organization can contribute to women empowerment efforts around the world.

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