Up close and personal Asia view
Gregory Clark is living proof that we all eventually get the face we deserve. The craggy, weather-beaten features of the 67-year-old author and former Hong Kong diplomat are the perfect accompaniment to a cussed, independent intellect that has earned him a reputation over the years as one of Asia's most combative, if unpredictable, commentators.
As busy as he is pugnacious, Clark can these days be found battling on a number of fronts, apart from promoting his just-released book, Why Won't Japanese Education Change?, which takes on the much-maligned education system of the country he has made home for more than two decades. Clark said the system reflected the 'groupism' of Japanese society, which strived for equality but 'kills competition and challenge in students', and must be radically overhauled.
Meanwhile, his regular Japan Times columns continue to pummel the 'disastrous' policies of Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, who on Saturday was re-elected president of the Liberal Democratic Party, solidifying his hold on the party and the country. Mr Koizumi, Clark said, was a 'flake' and an 'idiot' who had poisoned relations with Beijing by caving in to the LDP right-wing on visits to the Yasukuni Shrine, which honours dead Japanese soldiers including 14 war criminals.
'The Chinese people are entitled to their opinion of the Japanese,' Clark said. 'The imperial army behaved like animals during the war. If I were a Chinese man, my hatred of the Japanese would be visceral. In my view, Beijing has tried to put a lid on anti-Japanese feeling, partly because it could get out of hand. The Chinese leadership has said not all Japanese were to blame, that it was only the top people, that the Japanese are peace-loving and were manipulated by these 14 criminals. But now Koizumi goes out of his way to visit the shrine, which cuts the legs out from under the Chinese leadership. That's why this argument many Japanese come out with, that's it's purely a domestic issue and so on, won't wash.'
Clark's hatred of what he calls the 'hawkish irrationalities' of right-wing figures like Mr Koizumi animates much of his political analysis of the region. Unlike many empty media provocateurs, however, the Australian native can claim to have earned his right to comment on Chinese and Japanese affairs via half a lifetime of service in regional diplomacy and the media, and his fluency in both languages.
His relationship with China, which he says, 'inspired my whole career', began in 1960 when he was appointed, as the naive 24-year-old son of British economist Colin Clark, to the Hong Kong Australian commission under governor Sir Robert Black. By the time he had finished a two-year stint, including studying Chinese at Hong Kong University (where he says one of his fellow students was 'a fairly dour and not so bright Scot called David Wilson, who ended up years later as governor of Hong Kong'), Clark had experienced a political epiphany.
'My time there made me rethink a lot of my conservative views. I was forced to take a much closer look at such details as the Opium War ... western support for the corrupt Chiang Kai-shek regime in a cruel civil war against the only Chinese who had the guts to fight the Japanese, the sorry record of western colonialism and cruelty in Asia ...' Thus began Clark's disillusionment with the 'blind stupidity' of the western powers and ultimately with his employer, the Australian government, which he said was, like all US allies, inoculated from rational thinking in the region by an 'insane Cold War' ideology.
An early advocate of closer relations between Taiwan and China, believing the example of successful capitalism would bring China out of its shell, he said 'the hard-line anti-communism of most Australian diplomats' sidelined his views.
Clark found the same problem when he was promoted to first secretary of the Australian Commission in Moscow from 1963 to 1965. He said that under then Russian premier Nikita Khruschev, Russia was moving away from its 'Stalinist bastardy', but hawks on both sides sabotaged the early perestroika. 'If the Khruschev liberalisation had been allowed to continue, it is likely Russia would have evolved within a generation into a reasonably free society practising Scandinavian-style socialism,' he said.
Clark said anti-communist rigidities prolonged the Cold War by decades and led to the Vietnam War, over which he resigned from the service. He then launched a second career as an Asian correspondent for The Australian newspaper, before ending up in Japan as a writer, speaker and advisor to Tokyo on dozens of government committees covering issues ranging from nuclear power to education. He said he was the main inspiration behind a recent lowering of the age of university entry in Japan from 18 to 17, and is heavily involved in the setting up of an English-only college in Akita Prefecture in Honshu.
Despite his involvement with dozens of figures from Japan's political establishment, Clark rarely misses an opportunity to bite the hand that feeds him, and has been a consistent critic of what he sees as the 'emotionalism and irrationality' of Japanese government policies. These qualities, he said, were responsible for wrecking a promising thaw in relations between Japan and North Korea, after Pyongyang finally admitted a year ago to a kidnapping plot involving Japanese citizens. He said that while it was clear that the admission showed 'North Korea wants to open up', hawks in Japan and the US had worked hard to 'hijack' foreign policy, painting the communist regime as 'unpredictable and insane' and bent on acquiring nuclear weapons.
'Right-wing magazines and politicians have launched ferocious personal attacks against Hitoshi Tanaka, the senior Foreign Ministry official whose contacts with a high-placed North Korean official led to last year's short-lived breakthrough in relations,' he said. Mr Tanaka's home was bombed this month by ultranationalists, an act that Tokyo governor Shintaro Ishihara described as 'deserved'.
'Like most communist regimes, there is a clear gap between domestic and foreign policies,' Clark said. 'In its policies to the outside world, Pyongyang in recent years has behaved with logic and consistency', while Japan and the US, in contrast, had broken promises to North Korea: Japan by not allowing the kidnapped victims to return to Pyongyang as agreed, and the US by 'reneging on its 1994 promises to normalise relations with Pyongyang and to help develop alternative supplies of nuclear and other power'.
Clark said that on two occasions, 1994 and 1998, the US had shown a willingness to bomb North Korean nuclear facilities. 'In this situation, what is North Korea supposed to do? Lie back and wait to be bombed?' Clark sees clear parallels today with the west's earlier treatment of China, which, he said, was on the receiving end of US nuclear threats three times - 'once during the Korean War and twice during disputes over offshore Chinese islands being occupied by the Taiwan military'. In these circumstances, Beijing had 'little choice' but to set out to develop its own nuclear deterrent.
While views like these have done little to endear Clark to Tokyo or Washington, his contrary opinions ensure he will never be entirely embraced by the left either. Independent trade unions? Clarke said he was 'no fan' and that 'they cause more harm than good'. The national security bill in Hong Kong? 'The Chinese government are entitled to introduce an anti-subversion law,' he said.
Most surprisingly, perhaps, Clark has time for the controversial views of Governor Ishihara, including his much-criticised pronouncements on Chinese immigrants, whom he blames for a spate of violent crimes, particularly in Tokyo's red-light district.
'Ishihara likes me because like a lot of the right-wing in Japan he is violently anti-American and thinks I'm the same,' he said. 'He has this thing against illegal foreigners, especially Chinese, and I agree. The Chinese who come in illegally are breaking down the whole system here, which is based on atmosphere and tradition. It's very fragile. [The Japanese] don't have watchdogs and guys standing with guns, and Chinese illegals are exploiting it. It's just a couple of hundred Chinese but it's forcing the whole country to change and I think it's tragic.'
Clark insisted, though, that unlike Mr Ishihara he was 'completely pro-China'. 'I love to see it going up. In fact, in terms of purchasing-power parity China has already overtaken Japan to become the biggest economy in the world after the US. Even at official rates, it will overtake Japan in a decade or so.'
Does he ever return to Hong Kong, the site of his political conversion? 'Yes, it's remarkable what they've done there in so short a space of time,' he said, marvelling at the territory's development into one of the world's financial powerhouses in the 30 years since he left.
'That model, and Hong Kong capital and technology, have influenced Shanghai, Guangdong and the whole of China,' he said. 'A lot of people were worried when Beijing took over, but there's always been a basic pragmatism in Chinese foreign-policy disputes. I was always confident they would do the right thing in Hong Kong.'