Monday, 17 March 2014

"I’ll launch my journalism career by being a mouthpiece for an authoritarian regime. What could go wrong?"

Having written on the subject of Western journalists working for the state-controlled media of oppressive regimes before,it has been with great interest, and not a little satisfaction, that I have been following the exposure of RT (the English-language mouthpiece of the Kremlin) as essentially a propaganda operation which naive or foolish young journalists have signed up to work for only to later learn their mistake. This piece (on Buzzfeed of all places) does a good job of describing what it's like to work in RT, formerly know as Russia Today:


“It was me and two managers and they had already discussed what they wanted,” Bivens, an American who worked in RT’s Moscow headquarters from 2009 through 2011, said of a meeting she’d had to discuss the segment before a planned reporting trip to Germany. “They called me in and it was really surreal. One of the managers said, ‘The story is that the West is failing, Germany is a failed state.’”


Bivens, who had spent time in Germany, told the managers the story wasn’t true — the term “failed state” is reserved for countries that fail to provide basic government services, like Somalia or Congo, not for economically advanced, industrialized nations like Germany. They insisted. Bivens refused. RT flew a crew to Germany ahead of Bivens, who was flown in later to do a few standups and interviews about racism in Germany. It was the beginning of the end of her RT career.

 Living in China, I was amazed by the naivety of journalists who go worked for state-controlled propaganda outlets like CCTV and Global Times. They didn't seem to realise the seriousness of what they were doing - essentially making themselves an accessory to the rule of dictatorship. Instead you would hear strange talk about "helping China tell its story" (as if the Chinese state needs help with this) and absurd comparisons to the output of the BBC used to justify their decision.

The main motive of most of these people seemed to be to gain experience in a semi-professional environment, but it was rather unclear to what degree anyone's career could possibly be helped by having worked for a known propaganda outlet. It is far from certain that any foreign journalists who worked for the Chinese state media gained anything by doing so in professional terms, nor that the people being hired by the Chinese state media even had the skill-set to allow them to suceed in journalism. Instead these individuals fit the type that Jonathan Chait so accurately skewers here:

Their motives appear to be a mix of careerism, naïveté, and utter incuriousity. The modal career arc of an American RT reporter appears to be an ambitious but not terribly bright 20-something aspiring journalist who, faced with the alternative of grim local-news reportage, leaps at the chance to make two or three times the pay while covering world affairs, sort of. It’s the sort of reward that dims one’s incentive to perform due diligence into just who is signing your paycheck, and why. “I saw a job posting,” a former RT America reporter tells Gray, “and figured why not,” in one of the more hilarious uses of “why not” you will ever see. (I’ll launch my journalism career by being a mouthpiece for an authoritarian regime. What could go wrong?)

 Quite.
 

Monday, 3 March 2014


"Let’s begin with a clear and candid assessment of the facts.

It is a fact that Russian military forces have taken over Ukrainian border posts. It is a fact that Russia has taken over the ferry terminal in Kerch. It is a fact that Russian ships are moving in and around Sevastapol. It is a fact that Russian forces are blocking mobile telephone services in some areas. It is a fact that Russia has surrounded or taken over practically all Ukrainian military facilities in Crimea. It is a fact that today Russian jets entered Ukrainian airspace. It is also a fact that independent journalists continue to report that there is no evidence of violence against Russian or pro-Russian communities.

Russian military action is not a human rights protection mission. It is a violation of international law and a violation of the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the independent nation of Ukraine, and a breach of Russia’s Helsinki Commitments and its UN obligations." 

After a pretty bloody awful week for US and European diplomacy, at least the US ambassador to the UN is finally setting the right tone. It may well be that the US and the UK will not or can not compel the Russian government to honour their mutual commitment to respect the "independence and sovereignty and the existing borders" of the Ukraine, but at least we can speak the truth about what is going on there: invasion under a flimsy pretext and a flimsier disguise.

Thursday, 16 January 2014

How to be a clueless China-expat

If you're a fan of hathos, this post on the NYT's "You're The Boss" blog is a treat. It's a list of the things that Deb Weinhammer, a small business owner who I'm sure is a nice person, misses between China and Arizona, and it has this awesome opening:
United States: Brushing my teeth in running water. I have earned to love that I don’t need a bottle of water to brush my teeth at home in Arizona and can just use the tap without any fear of contamination.
Errr . . . Deb, why are you worried about brushing your teeth when further down you say:
China: Fruit and vegetables. There are so many different kinds of produce in China that aren’t available anywhere elsewhere and have only Chinese names.
If you're eating fruit, Deb, you're likely getting just as much exposure to contaminants as you would using tap water to brush your teeth - though personally I didn't worry about either of these things, though I boiled all my drinking water and drank tea everywhere. Hell, given the concerns about bottled water in China, simply drinking bottled water may not be a panacea. And what are these fruits and vegetables that only have Chinese names? Even something like Bok Choi is known by what is at least an Anglicised version of its Chinese (Cantonese?) name.

Then there's this:
United States: Driving my car. Foreigners can’t drive in China, and I love to get in the car and go.
I must just be imagining all those expats I know in China who not only drive there, but got their driving licenses there, and have been for years. What IS the case is that China doesn't recognise the international driving license, but if you want to drive there, and are willing to jump through a few hoops (I understand you can now even take the test in English), you can do so. Driving in China was, at least when I was there, a bit hairy given the rather lax enforcement of traffic laws, and most cities now have fairly good public transport, so I can understand not wanting to drive there, but it simply isn't the case that you can't drive there.

And then there's the references to the economic advantages that expats have in China:
China: My driver, Mr. Li. It is very inexpensive to have someone drive you around in China, and it allows me to catch up on my reading.
Personally, I've always felt a slight distaste for expats bragging about things being 'cheap' in China. Obviously things are not 'cheap' for local people, and saying that they are in front of them is bound to offend them. People do not like to be thought of as 'cheap'.

Like I said, I'm sure Deb Weinhammer is a nice person, but I wish they had learned a bit more about China before sitting down to write this piece, and the NYT should have read it a bit more closely before publishing it.

(H/T Ryan McLaughlin, AKA the Lost Laowai)


Friday, 3 January 2014

"Quan Jue"

This fascinating Straits Times piece on what (PRC government mouthpiece) Wen Wei Po's publishing of a lurid description of how Kim Jong Un had his uncle, Jang Song-Thaek executed says about PRC-DPRK relations is well worth reading. Money quote:
"According to the report, unlike previous executions of political prisoners which were carried out by firing squads with machine guns, Jang was stripped naked and thrown into a cage, along with his five closest aides. Then 120 hounds, starved for three days, were allowed to prey on them until they were completely eaten up. This is called "quan jue", or execution by dogs.
..... The official litany of Jang's treason implicated China three times. Jang was accused of underselling coal and other natural resources for which China was virtually the sole customer. He was also charged with "selling off the land of Rason economic and trade zone to a foreign country for a period of five decades under the pretext of paying debts". Finally, he was accused of selling precious metals, thus disrupting the country's financial stability. In fact, China purchased some of North Korea's gold reserves several months ago."
"Quan Jue" (犬决) is a Chinese term, not a Korean one, and there's no knowing if the description of  Jang's demise is accurate, but the Straits Times's linking of Jang's execution, and the apparent propaganda retaliation against it from Beijing, to deteriorating relations between the two countries seems perceptive.

Over the past decade, with economic growth in the PRC vastly outstripping that in the North, North Korea has become almost an economic adjunct of China. Visitors from China to North Korea that I've talked to disparagingly compare the modern-day DPRK to Cultural Revolution-era China, marvel about the buying power of the renminbi in that unhappy country, and how successful Chinese business have been there. It seems likely that this growing influence is what Kim Jong Un is so brutally trying to counter in his elimination of Jang. If so, he may well have bitten off more than he can chew.

(H/T The Daily Dish)


Thursday, 26 December 2013

The self-defeating stupidity of Shinzo Abe's visit to the Yasukuni Shrine

Whenever anyone asks me why Chinese and Koreans get so angry about Japanese politicians visiting the Yasukuni shrine, I ask them to imagine how the people of Europe might feel about Angela Merkel laying a wreath at a war memorial where, along with all the names of Germany's war dead, Herman Goring and Adolf Hitler were prominently listed, and where a museum asserted that the second world war was not Germany's fault. When these visits stopped several years ago, it was no more than an entirely realistic recognition of just how damaging these visits were for Japan's international image.

This is why it is quite simply unbelievable that Shinzo Abe should visit the shrine, especially now, when Japan frankly needs all the help it can get given its territorial dispute with China over the Diaoyu/Senakaku islands and its economic woes at home. As James Fallows notes, all the sympathy the Japanese may have gained as being seen as the victims of Chinese assertiveness are set at naught by this move:

" . . . there is almost nothing a Japanese prime minister could have done that would have inflamed tempers more along the Japan-China-South Korea-U.S. axis than to make this visit. And yet he went ahead. Last month, I said that China had taken a kind of anti-soft-power prize by needlessly creating its "ADIZ" and alarming many of its neighbors. It seems that I was wrong. The prize returns to Japan."
Quite.

UPDATE: Jeremiah Jenne's latest post on the PRC response to the visit in on-point. Money quote:

the CCP calling somebody out for being unable to accept historical responsibility is like Chris Brown putting his arm around your shoulder in a club and saying, “Dude, you really need to chill around your lady.” - See more at: http://granitestudio.org/#sthash.pvWiH6Sb.dpuf
" . . . the CCP calling somebody out for being unable to accept historical responsibility is like Chris Brown putting his arm around your shoulder in a club and saying, "Dude, you really need to chill around your lady."
the CCP calling somebody out for being unable to accept historical responsibility is like Chris Brown putting his arm around your shoulder in a club and saying, “Dude, you really need to chill around your lady. - See more at: http://granitestudio.org/2013/12/27/historical-responsibility-yasukuni-and-mao-zedong/#sthash.H8cqp75n.dpuf
the CCP calling somebody out for being unable to accept historical responsibility is like Chris Brown putting his arm around your shoulder in a club and saying, “Dude, you really need to chill around your lady.” - See more at: http://granitestudio.org/#sthash.pvWiH6Sb.dpuf
the CCP calling somebody out for being unable to accept historical responsibility is like Chris Brown putting his arm around your shoulder in a club and saying, “Dude, you really need to chill around your lady.” - See more at: http://granitestudio.org/#sthash.pvWiH6Sb.dpuf
It was an insensitive and counter-productive move on the part of the Japanese government.
But the CCP calling somebody out for being unable to accept historical responsibility is like Chris Brown putting his arm around your shoulder in a club and saying, “Dude, you really need to chill around your lady.”
- See more at: http://granitestudio.org/#sthash.pvWiH6Sb.dpuf
It was an insensitive and counter-productive move on the part of the Japanese government.
But the CCP calling somebody out for being unable to accept historical responsibility is like Chris Brown putting his arm around your shoulder in a club and saying, “Dude, you really need to chill around your lady.”
- See more at: http://granitestudio.org/#sthash.pvWiH6Sb.dpuf


Tuesday, 17 September 2013

The insanity at the heart of Chinese nationalism

"Personal opinion" or not, this insane plan for conquering most of Asia published as an editorial in the Chinese Communist Party's Hong Kong-based media outlet Wen Wei Po is certainly the kind of opinion and attitudes that the CCP is happy enough for Chinese citizens to have even if they would never dream of letting them influence official foreign policy.

The piece outlines a series of six "necessary" wars of conquest unfolding between 2020 and 2060 for "unification" of the country ("都是中國必須進行的統一戰爭"), with Taiwan first on the list for subjugation if they reject a 2025 deadline to "peacefully reunify". The fact that reunification at gunpoint is not "peaceful" according to any sane definition of the term does not seem to have occurred tot he author of this deluded piece.

Next up are the islands of the South China Sea. Again, a deadline for "peaceful" settlement of the dispute there is to be set, with war coming if China's terms are not met. The preferred strategy of this article's demented author is to invade Vietnam "because Vietnam is the biggest and strongest of the countries surrounding the South China Sea" ("因為越南是南海周邊最大最有實力的國家").

The third target of this military genius is the recovery of "South Tibet" from India. The pretence of even considering a "peaceful" solution is doen away here, with either the division of India into smaller, more mangeable parts, or a surprise attack in co-ordination with a Chinese-armed Pakistan being the only methods considered.

After these easy conquests, the author turns his (?) attention to the Diaoyutai and Ryukyu islands. In the 1960's China' Communist Party supported the return of the Ryukyu's to Japan, but here the CCP's own paper printing commentary calling the Japanese holding of the Ryukyus (which the author goes out of his way to indicate includes Okinawa) is an "illegal theft of China's wealth in the East Sea" ("非法竊取我國的東海財富")  deserving war.

As the fifth course in this brain-washed individual's banquet of military adventurism, he choses Mongolia. Apparently, having conquered Taiwan, he plans to resurrect the R.O.C.'s claims to the country as this is the only way to acheive "unification" with that country ("所以只能以中華民國的憲章及版圖為依據 對外蒙進行統一").

And the final step in this person's lunatic plan? An attack on Russia to reclaim territory lost by the Qing Dynasty, with war apparently being necessary to Russia's lack of "obedience" ("俄羅斯豈會乖乖歸還,到時唯有一戰。").

Again, I don't think this reflects official thinking in China, even if it was published in a government mouthpiece. If it were, modern-day China would not be engaged in reasonably friendly and productive relationships with many of the countries listed for invasion in this person's plans. Instead, it reflects the kind of insane ultra-nationalism and omni-directional aggression that the government is only too happy to engender in the Chinese population as a distraction from domestic issues.

The thing to keep in mind is, it works.

(H/T Big Lychee blog)



Sunday, 15 September 2013

The bomb under the floorboards

Just arrived back home after an epic road-trip across south-eastern Europe that I'll write more about in the next few weeks. First I'd like to relate something that happened a few months ago and still baffles me.

Living in the city of Wroclaw, you get used to occasional interruptions and evacuations caused by the many unexploded shells and bombs left in the city after the 80-day-long battle between the Red Army (and their Polish allies) and the city's German defenders. However, something of a somewhat different nature happened whilst the building I'm currently living in was being renovated back in May.

The worker found a package with German markings under the floorboards. Since the building I'm living in was built in the immediate pre-war era, whilst the city was still called "Breslau" and a long-standing part of the German Reich, and still has German signs over the light-switches, they thought little of it and set it aside. A neighbour, seeing the package, identified it as explosives of some kind and called the local bomb-squad who then took it away for disposal - but only after their husband nearly set fire to it in an effort to find out what it was!

I wasn't in at the time, so I never got to see it, but I'm left with a bunch of questions I have been unable to answer:
  • The area in which I live is to the north of Wroclaw and wasn't the scene of any great fighting - the main assault came from the south. I seems unlikely that the explosives were put there during the fighting - so how did they get there?
  • Who put the explosives there? Was it Germans preparing resistance to Soviet occupation? Or Poles preparing something later? Both seem unlikely - the 'Werwulf' resistance was a total flop, and Polish guerilla warfare wasn't really fought in this area since it wasn't part of pre-war Poland.
  • Why didn't the authorities investigate more? I cannot think that if the same thing happened in the UK that there would not be an investigation due to concerns about terrorist activities.
Anyone out there have any ideas?

Thursday, 22 August 2013

Ambush journalism

A journalist ambushes Russia Today for their concentration on the (deplorable) Bradley Manning/Edward Snowden stories and near-silence on much-worse domestic abuses, enjoy:


His criticism goes right to the heart of the problem of working for dictatorship-funded media, be it Russia Today, Press TV, CCTV 9, CRI, Global Times, or any of the media outlets set up by dictatorial states for the explicit purpose of getting their message across to the wider world. Essentially, they are a kind of faux-media that many of the foreigners working within seem to sleep-walk into without fully realising what they are doing. Many seem to believe (or at least, want to believe) that somehow working for a propaganda outlet will be no different to working for any other media outlet, that the assurances they receive that they will be free to cover whatever they like can ever be kept to, and that the experience they gain will be counted in their favour rather than being taken as a black mark on their record. The truth is quite different.

(H/T The Dish)

Thursday, 15 August 2013

Echoes of '89 . . .

. . . Beijing on June the 4th, specifically. Right now I'm listening to Jim Naughtie of BBC Radio 4's The Today Programme questioning the Egyptian ambassador's about the apparent mass killings in Cairo yesterday, and expressing disbelief of the Egyptian government's claims about what happened. The figures for the numbers who died being bandied around, the claims of self-defence by the government forces being made, sound very similar to those that came from the Chinese Communist Party leadership after the Tiananmen Square massacre.

Unfortunately the example of what happened after the Tiananmen Square massacre shows that governments can carry out a massacre of their largely peacefully-protesting rivals and not only survive, but flourish. Regardless of this, sanctions against the Egyptian government at least the equal of those brought against the People's Republic of China should be implemented to display disapproval of these acts - it may well be that the Egyptian military government, which depends to a large extent on military aid from the United States and other countries, may be easier to influence through a cutting off of such aid.

Tuesday, 6 August 2013

Your iPad did not kill anyone.

A friend of mine shared this article, about the conditions at Foxconn's 400,000 worker factory in Longhua where I used to work, via Facebook. I couldn't read past the title "The woman who nearly died making your iPad" without getting a sick feeling in my stomach - not because of the conditions it described at the firm, which I have been far from un-critical of, but because of the, frankly, irresponsible nature of the piece. The article takes a serious issue - high levels of suicide in China - and simultaneously trivialises it whilst placing the blame at the wrong door. Take the opening section:
"At around 8am on 17 March 2010, Tian Yu threw herself from the fourth floor of her factory dormitory in Shenzhen, southern China. For the past month, the teenager had worked on an assembly line churning out parts for Apple iPhones and iPads. At Foxconn's Longhua facility, that is what the 400,000 employees do: produce the smartphones and tablets that are sold by Samsung or Sony or Dell and end up in British and American homes. But most famously of all, China's biggest factory makes gadgets for Apple. Without its No 1 supplier, the Cupertino giant's current riches would be unimaginable: in 2010, Longhua employees made 137,000 iPhones a day, or around 90 a minute. That same year, 18 workers – none older than 25 – attempted suicide at Foxconn facilities. Fourteen died. Tian Yu was one of the lucky ones: emerging from a 12-day coma, she was left with fractures to her spine and hips and paralysed from the waist down. She was 17."
The article describes a tragedy, and attempts to connect it to special conditions at the factory. It fails to explain, however, how this is tragedy is specifically connected to Foxconn rather than simply work conditions everywhere in China (and in many firms outside China, even some in the west). One might just as easily take an example of a suicide at any workplace and seek to blame it on the employers.

It tries to dismiss the fact that the rate it describes (18 people at a factory housing ~400,000 worker) is roughly 1/5th of the national average (22.23 per 100,000) by saying that this "[Overlooks] how those who take their own lives are often elderly or women in villages, rather than youngsters who have just moved to cities to seek their fortunes" when this is in fact appears to go against what the source it links to says (i.e., "The disease control centre said suicide is the biggest killer among Chinese aged 15 to 34.").

In fact, even a casual inspection of the available sources shows that pay and conditions at Foxconn's Longhua plant are much better than those of the typical Shenzhen firm. The fact that the suicide rate at Foxconn's Longhua plant are so much lower than the national average reinforces this.

This is no surprise to anyone who has simply walked out of the Longhua factory gates and looked at the conditions at workplaces in the same neighbourhood. I remember seeing one family processing e-waste in their front room which opened onto the street. A young child played by a wok filled with molten solder.

But do newspapers cover the story of how the cheap products that fill our super-market shelves are made in dangerous conditions, and what happens to them after we're done with them? No, they focus on a factory which is much better than the vast majority simply because a big-name product is made there.

The situation described as leading to Tian Yu's decision to kill herself (over-work, adminstration problems leading to late/non-payment of salary) happen in many, many firms in China (and elsewhere, for that matter). Laying the blame for the generally poor working conditions that the average Chinese worker faces at the feet of either Apple or Foxconn is quite simply absurd given that they are far better than the average.

If blame should be placed anywhere, perhaps the people with the most power to decide the minimal level of conditions that employers have to offer their employees - the Chinese government - are the most deserving of blame for their failure to do anything, and their repression of independent trade unions that might negotiate better conditions. It is far easier, however, to simply castigate the greed of large companies who, in final analysis, only do what they are required to do by law.

Friday, 17 May 2013

The Farage Farago

In terms of publicity, it is difficult to imagine how Nigel Farage's visit to Edinburgh yesterday could possibly have been more successful. What would almost certainly have been a brief photo-op that would have been lost in the middle pages of a local paper, if noted  at all, has been blown into an opportunity to play the victim of anti-English racism at the hands of Scots nationalist extremists shouting comically contradictory phrases like “You’re a racist, go home to England”.

For all the supposed differences of left and right, the similarities between Farage's right-wing UK Independence Party and the nominally left-wing Scottish nationalists hardly needs to pointed out: both are essentially single-issue campaigns that harness the prejudices held by at least some amongst their base, both believe that should we follow their preferred course of action our problems will be solved "because independence". There is more than a passing similarity between UKIP's rhetoric of recovering sovereignty from Brussels, and the Scottish Nationalist Party's talk of recovering sovereignty from London.

The interplay between them is also worthy of note - the SNP's Alex Salmond would not now be able to say that voting for independence is the "only way" of staying in the EU if it weren't for Farage's UKIP pressuring the Conservative party into agreeing to a referendum on UK membership of the EU in 2017. Of course, nothing would make such a result less likely than UKIP succeeding in convincing more British voters to vote for them - since this would split the Conservative vote - unless that is, the Conservatives are utterly discreditted by, say, a Scottish vote for independence, although this thankfully looks unlikely given the latest polling.

Can UKIP succeed in Scotland even with this additional publicity? It's reasonable to ask whether they can succeed anywhere in the UK, but as Alex Massie points out, there's nothing totally crazy about the idea of them winning votes north of the border if the SNP can:

"UKIP’s definitional policy – leaving the EU – would scarcely be considered controversial in Norway, a land the SNP frequently cite as an example of what an independent Scotland could and should aspire to be. Yet, in a Scottish or British context, this is considered the stuff of lunatic extremism.

The evidence available at this juncture suggests leaving the EU is a less popular notion in Scotland than it is in England. Nevertheless polls report that roughly one in three Scottish voters would opt to leave the EU. Observant psephologists will note that this is not wildly different to the proportion who favour withdrawing from the United Kingdom. It is not obvious that one of these ideas is a priori absurd and the other plainly common sense."
 
Personally, as a reluctant pro-European, I can't support UKIP even if I do sympathise with some of their goals - their anti-immigrant rhetoric aside. The influence UKIP has had over the Conservative party, forcing David Cameron to propose this very ill-thought-out poll on the EU now makes it very difficult for me to see myself voting for them either. So who's left?

[Nigel Farage, UKIP leader, for once caught without a pint in hand, via Wiki]

Monday, 8 April 2013

"I always cheer up immensely if an attack is particularly wounding because I think, well, if they attack one personally, it means they have not a single political argument left." - Margaret Thatcher

Tuesday, 5 March 2013

March, 2003

I've been reading through the comments under this piece by Ta-Nehisi Coates describing his feelings about the anti-Iraq-war movement back in 2003:

"Back then I was seized with a deep feeling that I what I thought did not matter much. I was a writer in the sense that there were things that were published with my name on them. I didn't have a blog. I didn't have status. I didn't have a pager.

But I did have a grinding cynicism. I was skeptical of war, but if the U.S. was going to take out a mad tyrant, who was I to object? And more, who were you to object? I remember being out during one of the big anti-war protests and watching the crowds stream down Broadway. I remember thinking, "You fools believe that you matter? You think what you're saying means anything?"  
In fact it meant a lot. It meant that you got to firmly and loudly say, "No. Not in my name." It meant being on the side of those who warned against the seductive properties of power, and opposing those who would bask in it. It also meant pragmatism."
 
Personally I didn't agree much with the anti-war protesters back in 2003, and I'm not sure even now if they really knew what they were talking about. Don't get me wrong: I wouldn't back the war knowing what I know now - the war was a gamble with the lives of hundreds of thousands of innocent people - but I don't think that means that those who opposes the war should be allowed to retro-spectively claim they knew what was going to happen all along.

Back in 2003, the anti-war protests seemed to be made up of exactly the same people who had opposed the Gulf War in 1991 on the grounds that it would become a 'New Vietnam', the same people who said that the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York had been orchestrated by the US government, the same people who believed the war was motivated entirely by oil wealth, the same people who, in short, had spent the previous ten years being wrong repeatedly. It seemed that they would oppose the war whatever the fact of the matter, and this made their opinions seem irrelevant.

I do, however, recognise the cynicism Coates describes, I got the feeling that it really didn't matter what anyone thought about the war.

For me the progress to war seemed unreal - especially since I followed it mostly from Taiwan and China - because we had by then seen more than ten years of empty threats directed at Saddam's government. When I watched George W. Bush's ultimatum giving Saddam and his sons 48 hours to leave Iraq, neither I nor the people I was watching with could resist laughing out loud - the idea of a dictator giving up power in this fashion was simply too ridiculous, the speech itself very hard to take seriously. The statements about WMD also seemed over-blown - it was not possible to see this as a credible casus belli given the number of WMD-holding countries in the world, and I simply didn't believe that Iraq had a nuclear bomb yet.

I saw WMD as not much more than a pretext to remove Saddam Hussein, a brutal and vile dictator, and didn't believe that anything could be worse for the Iraqi people than his rule. This was my mistake - I didn't see the civil strife coming. Sure, there had been warnings about the post-war situation, but I couldn't believe that the US wouldn't be able to solve that by simply opening their financial coffers. The examples of Germany and Japan after the second world war loomed large in my mind. In a bar conversation in the summer of 2002 with one of the guys who ran the Taipei Baboons (who later suffered a tragedy of their own ) I remember holding forth about the possibility of a final battle in Baghdad, and dismissing the possibility of a guerilla war out of hand. Few people, I thought, would want to die for Saddam - that was about the limit of what I could see.

Monday, 4 February 2013

"Sinocentrism" is not an ideology

I enjoyed this piece in today's Washington Post (H/T Rectified Name) describing what they see as the possible reasoning behind the hacking of the New York Times' computers after their publishing of an article disclosing the massive wealth held by the family of former Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao (AKA the loveable 'Grandpa Wen'). The piece essentially says something very familiar to China watchers - that Chinese nationalists see outside criticism of the Chinese government as basically a form of attack on the country, and that as such it is permissable to take measures against such criticism which would, were such measures directed by foreigners against Chinese, draw accusations of meddling in Chinese affairs.

All the same, what they refer to as 'new Sinocentrism' (let alone the potentially tautologous nature of the word 'Sinocentric') is an extreme over-complication of a very simple phenomenon. Every powerful country in history has, with varying degrees of justification, been accused of seeing themselves as the centre of the world. The mere fact that some Chinese have a world-view that applies different rules to China than to other countries does not mean that they have developed an internally consistant ideology around that idea. In fact, it may just as easily be considered an example of how the Chinese government still lacks such an over-arching ideology and must instead rely on nationalism that comes more from the gut than anywhere else. A country operated according to an established ideology does not need to control debate in countries that do not subscribe to that ideology because that debate created outside the context of that ideology is invalid.

Just as important, such a 'Sinocentric' view is not 'new' in any meaningful sense of the word, because China's leadership never ceased seeing things this way. Even during the Mao years, the theory of "unequal treaties" (that is, treaties forced on China following a military defeat) formed the basis of all negotiations with former colonial powers and their successors, despite China's reliance on treaties which were, to all appearances, also formed 'unequally'.