Wednesday, 10 December 2014

The United States: Rogue State.

There's pretty much no other way to read the details of the CIA's torture program without coming to a very simple conclusion : that the United States is currently harbouring people known to have committed war crimes of every imaginable variety including many of the very worst short of genocide. Inevitably, other countries, including quite probably the UK, were involved also, but the main driving force behind these war crimes seems to have come from the US's incompetent, scared leadership of the time.

If the United States does not investigate these crimes and punish those reponsible it will be little better than Sudan, Syria, Iran, North Korea, the People's Republic of China, and other countries where human rights are regarded by those in power as having little consequence, except that we may at least hope that the torture program is no longer operational.

Tuesday, 2 December 2014

China refuses to allow MPs to visit Hong Kong: a modest proposal


Here's how Britain should respond to China's refusal to allow a parliamentary delegation to visit Hong Kong: just as unreasonably as China has acted in blocking a perfectly reasonable attempt to see whether the PRC was sticking to the terms of the 1984 Sino-British agreement.

Let's start by cancelling the student visas given to the children of high-ranking CCP officials like Bo Guagua and Yang Li. After all, the mantra that Britain is "no longer a colonial power" and shouldn't try to interest itself in Hong Kong and Chinese affairs, then this must cut both ways - there is no reason for Chinese officials to be sending their children to the UK to learn in Britain if British officials cannot visit China to investigate affairs there.

As a second move, let's close down all Confucius Institutes  (Chinese state-funded educational centres, normally based in UK universities) that have been set up in the UK. As all good paranoiacs know, these are basically spy command centres, and tools of cultural imperialism. If "western values" that the UK's parliamentarians might spread like democracy are a threat to China, then by the same absurd logic, bodies designed to teach about Chinese cultural values may also be a threat to the UK.

Finally, if compliance with bilateral treaties between our two countries may not be monitored without accusations of "colonialism", then it is not only British officials who must be barred from travelling. There are a whole raft of treaties and exchange programs (e.g., this one) visit the UK: let's scrap the lot.

But of course, we're too reasonable to do any of this.

[Picture: the original modest proposal]


Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Why North Korean tourism is ghoulish and wrong

As someone who has always had a slight yen to see what it is like to live in the world's last remaining Stalinist state, I have sometimes thought about visiting North Korea on tous such as those organised by the Koryo group. The one thing that has stopped me from doing so is the thought that foeign visitors may be used in North Korean propaganda as evidence of foreign support for the regime of the Kims, as well as the potential use of foreign currency earned from tourists in the Kim's various terrorism and drug-dealling enterprises.

A partial confirmation of this idea came in North Korean defector Park Yeon-Mi's live Q&A today in answer to a question about what the ordinary people of North Korea think about the outside world:

 Of course, beyond this, there is the distastefully ghoulish aspect of visiting a country which suffers under such a disasterous system merely for the rarity value, for the bragging rights of saying you saw a totalitarian dictatorship close-up. The nearest comparison would be taking photos at a deadly car-crash merely so you could say you had been there.

Am I wrong about this? At least it seems I am not the only one who thinks so.

[Photo: Tourists chat with local North Koreans. By Norman Harak, via Wiki

Thursday, 16 October 2014

Memories of Serbia

Last year, as my now-wife and I were driving down through the Balkans on our way from Poland to a friend's wedding in Greece, we stopped off in Belgrade for a few days, followed up by a night in Niš. The truly troubled countries of the Balkans - Bosnia and Albania - were saved for our return trip, but Serbia did not strike us as, in the main, a happy country, though it seems churlish to dwell on this given the welcome that many Serbs extended to us whilst we were there.

Most of the damage from the 1999 bombing had been repaired - though there still are ruined buildings in the centre of Belgrade - but there was an understandably suspicious attitude, at least at first, in much of the population to foreigners. Happily Poles are pretty welcome as brother-Slavs, and whatever initial suspicion people had towards us seemed to melt away when they heard we were travelling from Poland (I thought it best not to mention that I was British unless necessary).

One particularly striking memory was walking through the lovely quiet of a Belgrade night-time near the fortress, and looking across the Sava to see the massive Gazprom building with its giant neon sign on the other side. Here, it seemed to say, was an outpost of Russian influence in a country which, judging by the growing willingness of its people to display the EU flag and engage with the rest of Europe, was very slowly slipping away from them.

I claim no real expertise about Serbia or the Balkans as a whole, but still it is not a surprise, given what I saw there last year, to read of Serbian politicians simultaneously feting Putin in what appears to have been a trumped-up excuse to meet him with a parade (the anniversary it is supposed to celebrate does not even fall for four more days), whilst on the other hand talking of how they are irrevocably set on the road to Europe. The Serbs have already been through the grinder of war and want no more of it, though some of their people may have a sentimental attachment to the kind of politics of nationalistic pride amongst Slavs that Putin represents, and which he has used to slice bleeding chunks out of his Georgian and Ukrainian neighbours.

[Picture: The crypt in the church at Topola, final resting place of the Kings of Serbia, where we made a relaxing stop after Belgrade. The wine from the neighbouring vineyard was also well worth sampling] 


Thursday, 2 October 2014

"Caged Birds Think Flying Is An Illness" - The Stand-Off In Hong Kong


And the beat goes on. Having basically provoked these mass demonstrations throughout Hong Kong through their rash bombardment of the of peacefully demonstrating students who originally turned out to protest Beijing's failure to allow the genuine democracy in the territory, the Hong Kong authorities have struggled to come up with an effective way of coping with them.

The Hong Kong authorities first bombastically condemned the demonstrations as illegal. As an example of the kind of world these people live in, Regina Ip's comments that the students actions could lead to another Tiananmen (rather than, I don't know, the authorities unleashing lethal military force on unarmed protesters? Like actually happened in Tiananmen in '89?)  is a stunning example.

Then the Hong Kong authorities, perhaps realising they had over-stepped the mark, started to make more conciliatry and moderate statements. One un-named government official was quoted as saying that "Unless there's some chaotic situation, we won't send in riot police ... We hope this doesn't happen . . . We have to deal with it peacefully, even if it lasts weeks or months." The rather obvious plan being here to wait for the demontrations to make themselves unpopular through the disruption they might cause to the city.

Perhaps this was rather too conciliatory for Beijing's tastes, since the mainland authorities have since then made ever more strident warnings against continuining the demonstrations. A People's Daily editorial yesterday which has been compared to the infamous editorial threatening the demonstrators in Tiananmen square, described the consequences of continuing the demonstrations as "unimaginable". The Chinese Foreign ministry has followed suit by warning foreign diplomats to stay away from demonstrations (never mind that this may well be impossible, given the location of the demonstrators). Pictures of baton-rounds and tear-gas being distributed to police have been circulating on Twiter - the good reputation of the Hong Kong police, described by some as "Asia's Finest", has definitely taken something of a knocking over the last week or so.

Responses from ordinary people on the mainland to the demonstrations in Hong Kong have been somewhat unsympathetic, with this moronic cartoon doing the rounds (if widespread bloodshed does occur in Hong Kong, does anyone seriously think it will not be the Chinese authorities who initiate it?). This explanation has much truth in it -

Of course another explanation is that people on the mainland who are sympathetic to what is going on in Hong Kong are liable to be arrested.

Less easy to understand have been the attempts from some in the Sino-blogo-sphere to seemingly down-play the Hong Kong demonstrations.

One example of this is J Michael Cole's attempt to pooh-pooh the Hong Kong demonstrations as somehow a re-run of this year's much smaller Taiwanese demonstrations against the elected-but-unpopular KMT government's trade treaty with the PRC, a story which the world's news media largely ignored. The idea that a minor - if noisy - episode in Taiwan's domestic politics just wasn't as important as a people demonstrating for freedom from a dictatorship doesn't seem to have occured to him.

Another example is Kaiser Kuo's attempt to draw a straight line from pro-democracy demonstrations to anti-mainlander sentiment in Hong kong. I sure hope this wasn't intended as the smear it came off as.

And what is likely to be the outcome of these demonstrations? Predictions of an early exit for Hong Kong Chief Executive CY Leung have been doing the rounds, but I cannot believe that would happen as a direct sop to the demonstrators (not least because that would embolden them). Anyway, the CCP has been making supportive statements about heir picked man in Hong Kong - though their talk of "fully trust[ing]" Leung and being “very satisfied” with him do sound a bit like the kind of statements the board of a Premiership football club would make about an embattled manager right before sacking him. If Leung is going, they'll drop him at the end of his term in 2017 similar to the ousting of Tung Chee-hwa, not now.

Still less likely are any concessions from the CCP to allow meaningful elections in the territory. Whilst the broken promise of free elections is what led to these demonstrations in the first place, the CCP is no more likely to deliver on them now than it was, and seems fixed on its policy come-what-may. Pace  McMurphy, since the CCP decided what it was going to do ages ago - likely as long ago as 2007, conciliatory measures from the pro-democracy camp would do nothing to improve the system on offer, but then again neither are demonstrations - though this cannot be known for sure.

Most likely, sooner or later the demonstrators will quit, hopefully having given the Hong Kong authorities and the Chinese Communist Party the humiliation that they so richly deserve, but likely without having acheived much in the way of meaningful concessions. The pro-dem members of the Legislative Council will veto proposals that do not allow them to even run for election, thus preserving the current system where they may run but not be elected. Hong Kong will go back to business as usual - until the next time.

[Picture: Demonstrators occupying Harcourt Road, Admiralty hold a "candlelight vigil" with mobile phones. By Wiki user Citobun]

Sunday, 28 September 2014

This Not What Democracy Looks Like

Thousand of peaceful demonstrators in Hong Kong gathered to protest Beijing's failure to allow meaningful democratic elections in the territory are scattered with tear-gas, whilst Chinese state television reportedly tries to explain the events as a mass celebration of the national holiday. Words fail.

Saturday, 20 September 2014

This Is What Democracy Looks Like


So the results are in, the ballots counted, the results accepted, and the Union preserved by a healthy, if not totally overwhelming margin of nearly 11%. A region voted on its independence without - Moscow take note - the requirement of thousands of Kalashnikov-wielding thugs invading and declaring a suspiciously massive majority for one side.

The cause of Scottish independence has obviously seen a set-back here, though they'll long talk about their 1.6 million votes for an independent Scotland, and anyway thrive on historical remembrances of what might have been going right back to 1707 if not earlier. Unionists like myself cannot rest too easy since 45% of voters voting against the Union indicates that many Scots do not agree that preserving the Union is in their interest - there's certainly work to be done.

Regionalists in the rest of the UK are now beginning to take note of the new powers promised to Scotland. I personally think this will be flash in the pan - other experiments in devolution in England outside of London have been met with outright apathy (particularly the experiment in elections for crime commissioners, which cannot even raise a 20% turnout). The idea that Scottish-style politics will energise the rest of the UK is an odd one when you consider the low turnouts typically seen in Holyrood elections.

For myself, though, playing  very, very small part in keeping the Union together has been a revelation. The next likely referendum in the UK will be those on EU membership, promised if there is a Conservative government elected in the next parliament (though the Conservatives are committed at the moment to staying in), and I intend to help out in them too.

[Picture: Scottish independence referendum results - red is "No", green is "yes". By Wiki user Sceptre]

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

My (Unwritten) Constitutional Patriotism


I attended the Unity Rally in London on Monday, where I took the above picture. Geldof spoke well, and movingly, about the opportunities he found in the UK that he could not find in Ireland, and how it seemed crazy to him, as an Irishman, given the things that drove Ireland to independence, that Scotland should seek it over matters so much more minor and temporary. "If I were Scottish, I might ask myself 'why not?'" he said, "But I'm Irish, so I ask 'Why?'".

 I have to say the last two weeks have left me surer than ever that I am, first and foremost, British, and a Unionist. Some authors on the left have spoken of this kind of sentiment as somehow "fake" or as a kind of evil nationalism (normally whilst ignoring or dismissing the genuine nationalism of the SNP). I can only speak for myself, but I see it as something closer to what the Germans call "constitutional patriotism", but in country with no written constitution. It would be a great shame if this is the last 24 hours in which I can claim it to be so.

  [You can read the BBC report on the rally here. I'm standing to the right of the guy with the sign in the bottom-most picture]

Saturday, 6 September 2014

Say No To A Vote From The Gut.


Scottish voters are due to vote, as is their democratic right, on independence in ten days time. The arguments on the virtues of the SNP's independence plans have been argued and re-argued. By now, if you're not convinced that independence along the lines that Alex Salmond is proposing makes little or no sense, that it will result in economic turmoil, in a country using another's with no say in how its run, in a Scottish exit from the EU, in bad blood, and the end of the most successful union-state, there's little that can be said to change your mind.

The heavy negative impact of independence was why the clear lead the 'No' camp had up until last week made sense, and why the progress 'Yes' has made in recent days in the polls is so bizarre and shocking. My feelings on the issue are much the same as Will Hutton's here:
Without imaginative and creative statecraft, the polls now suggest Scotland could secede from a 300-year union, sundering genuine bonds of love, splitting families and wrenching all the interconnectedness forged from our shared history.

Absurdly, there will be two countries on the same small island that have so much in common. If Britain can't find a way of sticking together, it is the death of the liberal enlightenment before the atavistic forces of nationalism and ethnicity – a dark omen for the 21st century. Britain will cease as an idea. We will all be diminished.

Hutton is right about the character of the feelings pushing some Scottish voters towards voting for independence when arguments based on the facts weigh so heavily against it. He's also right about what the cost would be. I personally will never be able to think of my family in Scotland as foreign, or Scotland as another country, and for me interposing a border between us would be a monstrous act.

There's still hope, of course, that this is all just a blip, that cooler heads will prevail, and that the Scottish people will decisively say 'No' on the 18th of September in the same way they were planning to up until last week. It should also be pointed out that there will be Scottish elections in May 2016, and that whilst Alex Salmond has set a deadline of March 2016, he has no more right to demand such a deadline than he does to demand the currency union that British political leaders have decisively rejected. A win for Unionist parties in 2016 could therefore theoretically render a 'Yes' a dead letter - but this is a slender reed to grasp.

I hope that in time Britain can look back on this much as Canada looks back on the Quebec vote of 1995, where independence also took the lead in some polling before a razor-thin vote against it, and where now the prospect of a split is further away than ever after BQ (the main pro-independence party) was soundly defeated in the last election..


Tuesday, 2 September 2014

Xi As The Undoer Of Deng, Continued


I read a very interesting piece over at the Peking Review on Xi's apparent rejection of Deng's low-profile foreign policy, in contrast to the assertive policy of the Mao era:
A phrase that is making the rounds among China watchers is “tao guang yang hui.” I will not attempt to explain the concept: any brief explanation would hide too many nuances, and nuances are important here. I just watched an online debate amongst some of my more scholarly friends, and the battle was about different interpreteations of of the phrase.

One interpretation of the phrase is captured in Deng Xiaoping’s maxim “keep a low profile and bide your time, while also getting something accomplished.” Given the noises China has been making in the South China Sea, the East China Sea, the Indian frontier, and Hong Kong, it appears to some that China has abandoned the tao guang yang hui strategy altogether.
The piece echos a sentiment also expressed in response to the PRC government's announcement that Hong Kong was to be denied meaningful democracy: that the modern-day PRC government under the leadership of Xi Jinping had rejected the pragmatism of the Deng era.
Distrust of the Chinese Communist Party runs deep in Hong Kong, a city built largely by refugees from famine and party-sponsored political violence in mainland China. Deng Xiaoping understood this, and deftly worked around it.

His formula for recovering Hong Kong from Britain in 1997—One Country, Two Systems—was an acknowledgment that the party's credibility in Hong Kong was low and that if it simply moved in and took over it would destroy public confidence and likely wreck the economy. Hence, Hong Kong was allowed to keep its British-style law courts and administration. And it was promised democratic elections for its future leaders.

Today's Chinese leadership shows far less willingness to embrace such political pragmatism, or to employ subtlety and compromise in its dealings with the territory.
For anyone who cared to look, the signs that Xi Jinping would strike a much more strident tone than the technocratic Hu/Wen team, or the mildly reformist governing style of Jiang Zemin, were there even before he assumed power. The turning point for me was the crack-down of 2011, when controversial Chinese artist Ai Weiwei was arrested, as well as many others. Back then I wrote:
It is easy to see where the impetus for this crack-down is coming from. We may be more than a year away from the beginning of Xi Jinping's reign, but it is hard not to see the same crude artlessness in these arrests that Xi has betrayed in many of his public pronouncements.

I hope I'm wrong, but I cannot rid myself of the idea that Xi's rule is going to be disastrous for both the CCP and China. It is hard not to think that we are seeing the end of the balancing act that the CCP has so successfully conducted these past 32 years, and the beginning of an unashamed totalitarianism which few in the CCP ranks want, even if their new leader apparently does. The relatively subtle touch introduced by Deng in 1979 risks being undone, if not the economic reforms of that year and later.
Everything we've seen this year, both internally in the "anti-corruption" campaign that seems to only find corruption amongst Xi Jinping's political enemies, and externally in the assertive tone of China's new foreign policy, supports this analysis.

Sunday, 31 August 2014

CCP to HK: Drop Dead

So, the new elections system for Hong Kong, a system that was probably decided many years ago, has now been made public. As suspected, it will basically be weighted so as to practically exclude anyone from the democratic camp from running.

There's people out there with more insight on this than I have (word up The Big Lychee blog), but I'm struck by a singular thought: this decision will literally leave the PRC government in the position of having to explain why it is that a pro-democrat like Albert Ho could run in the 2012 election, where he stood no chance of winning, but in an electoral system where he could win, the new system will almost certainly block him from running as "unpatriotic" (i.e., not  a supporter of the Chinese Communist Party). No doubt the PRC government will be no more phased by this contradiction than they are by the myriad other contradictions of modern-day China, not least of which is the anachronism of their rule, but people in Hong Kong will not so easily dismiss it.

Journalist Mark Mackinnon thinks this violates the spirit of the handover agreement, but personally I think that already happened when the CCP issued a white paper saying that they could end Hong Kong's autonomy if Hong Kong did not "fully respect" the mainland's political system. The promise of 50 years of unchanging autonomy is empty if the government says it can change it at any time it likes on such vaguely-defined grounds as a lack of "respect".

EDIT: This also seems pretty relevant -




[Picture: former Hong Kong chief executive candidate Albert Ho addresses supporters of Occupy Central, 19 June, 2014, via Wikicommons]

Sunday, 24 August 2014

A Wedding In Poland



Two weeks ago today I was resting on a river bank by a lazy river, nursing an epic hangover after the greatest, most enjoyable and touching bash I had ever attended, whilst my brother worked on composing the above song. There is something awfully self-serving about praising one's own wedding, but the reception we held at Palac Alexandrow, formerly the home of the von Richthofens (including supposedly the famous Red Baron - a fact too good to check), was, to quote my seven-year-old niece, "magical".

The wedding also was a leaving-party of sorts, since I am now returning to the UK to start a new job and a new life. Life's going to get a lot more staid, I'm afraid - after more than a decade of travelling between different countries, speaking different languages, I'm now back in the UK for the forseeable future, married to a wonderful woman, with a house and a car and a serious job.

As a result posting is bound to become less frequent, though I'm not going to abandon this blog, as the world has hardly become a place less worth writing about. I might even get around to finally carrying out the big re-vamp that I've been putting off for the last few years.

Friday, 18 July 2014

The world, and Europe in particular, needs to tell Putin they've had enough.

Nearly four years ago, after a relatively short hop over the East and the South China seas from Kansai International, and a far-too-long lay over in Kuala Lumpur, I sat on a Malaysia Airlines flight and watched the desert shores of the Caspian Sea slip by some ten thousand metres below, and the plane then headed on over Rostov-on-Don and Eastern Ukraine. That was four years ago, but it could just as easily have happened yesterday, and I - and anyone else who regularly flies between Europe and Asia - could just as easily have been on flight MH17 as it was blasted out of a sky by a missile that was almost certainly fired by either the Russian military or their proxies within Ukraine.

Some people - Tom Friedman being a shining example - are given to talking about the interconnected-ness of the modern world, and how the shared interests this should generate should act to limit conflicts as the damage will no longer be limited to a single area of the globe. If this is at all true then the citizens of all the countries affected by the conflict, particularly those closest to it in Europe, need to finally take a stand against Putin's incursion into the Ukraine, an incursion which has now resulted in the deaths of hundreds of perfectly innocent people. They need to do it now, and they need to do it in a definite and un-ignorable way.

That's why the very first thing that needs to be questioned is whether it is appropriate to be hosting the 2018 World Cup in Russia, and whether the teams of countries whose citizens have been killed by Putin's proxies should really be planning to attend a sports tournament that will be a major PR coup for the Putin government.

Monday, 23 June 2014

700,000 votes, China, and Hong Kong.


So Occupy Central's unofficial referendum on the voting system to be used for future elections in Hong Kong is over, and the number of (unvetted, unobserved) votes are in - and it's quite a figure. If (and it is an "if", though probably not a big one) the figures are accurate, something like 15-20% of the eligible voters in Hong Kong voted in an unofficial poll that the Hong Kong government and their Beijing-based overlords have done everything in their power to disuade them from taking part in.

The take-away from this, just as in every other occasion when Beijing has attempted to put pressure on a free society, is that such acts are liable to back-fire by driving people to the other side. It is difficult to believe that so many Hong Kongers would have voted in this poll without all the free publicity that the (unloved, at least in Hong Kong) central government has gifted to Occupy Central, the intransigence of the latest white paper on Hong Kong being the most striking example of this.

I feel the Occupy Central organisers missed a trick, though, in not putting the central government-proposed system, but only "genuinely democratic" options on their ballot paper. Giving the voters the option to vote down the government's proposals would have made their message so much clearer.

[Picture: the leaders of the Occupy Central movement. Via Wiki]