Kim Jong-il is dead

What a whirlwind 2011 has been, and it ends with the stunning news of the change in leadership in North Korea.

Arab Spring started in January with the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi and soon spread to many of the Middle Eastern countries and north Africa. This lead to the downfall of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali of Tunsia, President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, and Colonel Muammar Gaddafi of Libya (following the use of NATO military intervention). President Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen had to leave the country after being burned when his palace was attacked – Yemen seems to be teetering on the edge. Syria has had an uprising during the year too.

Then the earthquake in Christchurch, followed 3 weeks later by the massive earthquake and tsunami in Japan and the subsequent meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.

May brought the news that Osama bin Laden was found and killed in Pakistan in a daring night raid by the US. A few months later, the world reflected on the 10th anniversary of the September 11 attacks.

In the summer the Space Shuttle retired and Prince William and Catherine Middleton were married in the largest wedding since his father and Diana.

The largest country in Africa, Sudan, split. Thailand suffered major floods caused over $45 billion in damage. The floods were the fourth most expensive natural disaster in the world. The world population reached 7 billion people. Steve Jobs died.

The year of the protests spread to North America with Occupy Wall Street. The protests soon spread worldwide.

Europe has staggered through 2011 with a continuing series of economic crises over sovereign debt.

And today the news of the death of Kim Jong-il. North Korea is one of the most troubling countries of the world. It is a nuclear-armed society based on a cult of personality – and the personality just died.

2011 was be a year to be remembered. I imagine that the events of this year will have impacts far into the future.

Monthly Museum – Aviation Museum

Last month, I decided that I should visit a museum or other interesting site once a month. There are many sights and attractions here in Ottawa that I have never visited. After living here for 13 years, it’s time that I take in all that Ottawa offers.

Today, I decided to visit the Canadian Aviation and Space Museum. I last visited the museum sometime before 2000.

Gate to Chinatown
Gate to Chinatown (almost a perfect shot)

Before I went there, I wanted to stop in Chinatown to see the new gate that was opened earlier in the week. It was such a beautiful day, I didn’t mind walking around.

The gate looks fantastic. The colours are very rich, and the detail is very intricate.

I walked around Chinatown, then down Bronson and finally back to my car. I left for the museum, using my iPhone to provide directions.

Panorama of the Canadian Aviation and Space Museum
Panorama of the Canadian Aviation and Space Museum

Some of the exhibits are the same as when I was here over a decade ago. The nose of the infamous CF-105 Avro Arrow, the huge BOMARC surface-to-air missile (which was part of the replacement for the cancelled Arrow), the various passenger planes that opened up the remote areas of Canada, and some of the early planes in Canadian history.

I was pleasantly surprised to see a full-scale mock-up of the new F-35 fighter that Canada is apparently purchasing.

I am not an accountant, so I cannot comment financially if it is the correct time to be replacing the older CF-188 Hornet. But I am not sure if this particular plane is right for our military. The combat range is longer than the ‘short-legged’ Hornet, but has only a single engine. Originally Canada only used twin-engine military jets as it offers redundancy over the very remote areas of Canadian territory (or over the ocean that is so critical to Canada). With only a single engine, any engine issue means that the plane has to be ditched (total loss) if it cannot glide to a landing location. I am concerned about the costs (I am assuming that other reasonable alternatives could be cheaper); we are replacing the 80 Hornets with only 65 F-35’s.

F-35 mock-up
F-35 mock-up

The new fighter would provide a significant increase in other respects, such as stealth (the Hornet has very little stealth) and increased range. I think selecting the F-35 was a foregone conclusion many years ago when the Canadian government invested $160 million to be a level-3 participant. I know that eventually the Hornets need to be replaced, and it is important that Canada continue to have an air protection and force projection capability. We need to protect our sovereign territory. Russia in particular is looking to increase its reach into the Arctic region. Interception of Russian bombers is increasing in frequency. So even though at this point in the 21st century we are not faced with large military manoeuvres against a great enemy (we are faced with an insurgency armed with goats), we need to plan for what cannot be foreseen – the world in 2030, not 2010.

Captain Marc Garneau's flight suit
Captain Marc Garneau's flight suit

On the upper floor of the museum is the Space section. There are fewer items on display here, as Canada is not really a space-faring nation. But there are uniforms, spacesuits, notebooks and other smaller memorabilia on display. There are more Canadian astronauts that I though, although not all of our astronauts have made it into space.

20th Century History of China

There is much of history that I do not know. In Canada, the history education is keyed towards the story of the civilizations that contributed to Canada – from the Fertile Crescent, Egyptian empire, Ancient Greece, the Roman Empire, a little bit about the Middle Ages, Christopher Columbus, the French Revolution, Napoleon, the British Empire, the US Revolution and Civil War, culminating in World Wars I and II. The history courses barely touched the post-war era.

The gaps in my knowledge include the history of Africa, South America and Asia. For example, my knowledge of Chinese history was only cursory: they invented gunpowder, there was a guy named Confucius, a bunch of dynasties, Genghis Khan, they built a wall to keep someone out, then Chairman Mao and Tiananmen Square.

I had read a little bit about the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, and how they effected people in China. But I did not know why those events happened.

And I’ve read about what China is like today (the booming economy, the mass migration, etc) via the journalist James Fallows (The Atlantic), through TV and YouTube video clips, and by reading the book China Road by Rob Gifford.

None of that helped explain why there are major tensions between Mainland China and the island of Taiwan.

Therefore, I was very pleased to have bought and read “China: A New History, Second Enlarged Edition” by John King Fairbank and Merle Goldman. This book has filled in those huge gaping holes in my knowledge and understanding. And it has been full of real surprises, especially around the tumultuous events of the 20th Century in China.

I did not know about the conflicts between the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) under Mao and the Kuomintang (GMD) under Chiang Kai-shek, how they had partly worked together to fight the Japanese invasion, then in the post-war years the CCP pushed the GMD out of mainland China. The GMD leaders fled to the island of Taiwan (then known as Formosa).

What surprised me the most was how cut-off mainland China was from the rest of the world. I was stunned to learn that until 1979, Taiwan was recognized as the sole legitimate government for all of China. Taiwan represented China at the United Nations Security Council until 1971. I had assumed that there had always been recognition of mainland China as a separate entity from Taiwan since their modern formation in the late 1940’s.

China was completely cut-off from the world for decades, similar to North Korea today. It was inwardly focused. After the Sino-Soviet split of 1961, China was even more alone.

I had known that Nixon’s 1972 trip to China was pivotal for opening up of China, but I never had the context to fully understand why. Now I can see how crucial that visit was.

The current status of Taiwan is also better understood with the new historical framework. Taiwan continues to be protected by the US. In the late 1940’s, the US protected and even sent troops to the island to defend it as part of the communism containment policy; this was only a few years into the Cold War. The US Seventh Fleet patrolled the East China Sea to bolster the defense of Taiwan from the communist mainland. At the same time, the US was involved in the Korean War, where General MacArthur specifically planned to invade China across the Yalu River before he was relieved of command. As with Germany and Japan, this fed the economic growth from being within the US sphere of influence.

The events in Tiananmen Square took place only 10 years after official recognition. It would be easy to guess that the older hardliners in the CCP were surprised by the reaction from the rest of the world for what it might have seen as a purely internal matter. Once it opened itself to the world, it also opened itself to critism of its human rights records, its pollution, and so forth. Like a company that just had an IPO, everything that was once private becomes very public. and open to criticism and condemnation.

Reading “China: A New History” has opened up more of history than any book I have read in the last two decades.