Monday, 23 August 2021

"Freedom Day"


Election advertising at the Kleve Tiergarten, August 2021

We are a month and a bit after "Freedom Day" was declared by Boris Johnson, and the UK removed most (but not all) COVID-related restrictions, for most of which I have been on a much-needed holiday with my family in Kleve, Nordrhein-Westfalen, Germany (best known to most British people as "Cleves", home of Anne of Cleves), visiting relatives. 

The change that vaccination has wrought in our lives is clearest when I compare this visit to our visit at around the same time last year. Last year we hardly went anywhere for fear of catching COVID and giving it to elderly family relatives. In comparison, this year, with ourselves and everyone we associate with closely vaccinated, we have much more freedom to move about and much less concern over catching COVID. 

The controls that remain here in Germany do not cause too much difficulty, with the introduction last week of the "3G" check requirements (essentially checking whether you have been vaccinated, infected, or tested) resulting in no actual requests for proof of vaccination yet in any of the places I have been here in Kleve, despite the 3G proof requirement being prominently displayed - perhaps an example of the "mountains are high, and the emperor is far away" here in Kleve?

Kleve itself is a perfectly relaxed town, which at this stage in my life suits me down to the ground. The town and surrounding country has a very large Polish community, indeed in nearby Emmerich on the Rhein it seemed that the majority of the children at the playground were Polish-speakers. Quite why is not clear to me (our relatives here think perhaps many Poles live here where living costs are relatively low but work across the nearby border with the Netherlands)  but it does at least give us an additional common language beyond my GCSE German and the typically-excellent English of the locals.

Germany is in the throws of an election campaign and I wouldn't dare even guess what the result might be. Here in Kleve I have seen campaign advertising for every party from AFD to MLPD, though adverts featuring the SPD's Olaf Schultz and Bodo Wissen seem to predominate even if Kreis Kleve is currently represented in the Bundestag by the CDU's Stefan Rouenhoff. Having strong feelings about other people's elections always seemed a little odd to me, but were I a German voter probably my natural home would be with the FDP - however even I can tell that their campaign material at least locally is distinctly lack-lustre.

Soon we will return to the UK. Despite the bizarre warnings that some made back in July ("Covid unlocking is threat to world" ran one headline) COVID in the UK has not ballooned, nor has it disappeared either. It is my thorough intention to live as much as possible (without pointless grandstanding about e.g., masks - if someone requires them then I'll wear them) as though it did not exist. I am somewhat persuaded that, with the rapid spread of Delta variant, it may no longer be possible to fully eliminate COVID, in which case continuing vaccination to render it relatively non-deadly is the only way forward. Lockdowns should be avoided unless necessary to avoid health services being over-run, not repeatedly re-applied to try to reduce COVID to zero (so-called "zero COVID" strategy) when this may well be impossible.

At any rate this summer holiday - which looked very touch-and-go in early July when Germany was still essentially banning travel from the UK for all but German citizens and residents - has been a very welcome respite. 

Thursday, 4 February 2021

A Covid Winter

So, as seemed inevitable from the beginning of December, we entered the third lockdown of the pandemic here in the UK and have been stuck in it since the start of the year. Christmas plans were made, scrapped, made again, and then scrapped again - a plan to visit relatives abroad turned into a plan to visit relatives in the UK, which turned into a plan to stay at home. Travel to many countries from the UK is now impossible as flights have been banned.  Schools have been closed since the start of the year meaning that life for children has become a never-ending, never-beginning holiday. 

The bottom-point for morale was two weeks into lockdown, when it was clear that it would not end in early February but the holiday was no longer there to look forward to, and the greyness and ceaseless rain of the English winter left little opportunity to even go out. Then things slowly began to look a bit more hopeful as the vaccination campaign here in the UK got into its stride. Vaccination is not a panacea, but it raises the hope that, in May or whenever it is complete (at least for this first wave of vaccination) we might begin to live lives that are bit more ordinary.

I very much hope that once this is over the necessary investment is made in medical R&D to ensure that this, my second pandemic, is also the last that the world has to endure, at least at this level of seriousness.  

Friday, 22 May 2020

Plague 2020

So the UK, a bit later than some other European countries, is now finally relaxing its lockdown, though it seems we are now faced with months of restrictions on travel and other activities. It seems time to take stock of what exactly has happened over the last six months.

The initial spread of the virus in China seems to show that in almost every way the PRC government has failed to learn, at all, any of the lessons of the original SARS outbreak. The same attempts at cover-up were made. The same mixed messages and knowingly-false information was pedalled.  The authorities were still, in mid-late January, claiming that there was no evidence of person-to-person transmission of the disease, whilst they had probably know for at least a couple of weeks that this was not true as they were already seeing diagnoses of a SARS-like disease at the end of December.

Whilst other governments bear the responsibility for their poor response to the arrival of the disease, only one government bears the ultimate responsibility for failing to stop the initial spread of the disease globally: China's. This should not be forgotten, even as we should guard against attempts to divert attention away from the failures of the US, French, Spanish, Italian, or UK governments.

Probably like most China-watchers outside China, I am rare amongst my countrymen in that I have been paying attention to the COVID-19 situation since its early discovery in Wuhan. I wish I could say that this had brought me much foresight on the issue but, again, probably like most other China-watchers outside China, whilst knowing about the spread of the virus in Wuhan meant I was concerned about it a bit earlier than others, I did not foresee its eventual spread around the globe as anything but a potential possibility, and not as a reality that should be prepared for until towards the end of February of this year.

I wish I could say that having been in China during the 2003 SARS epidemic had given me some insight into what might happen. The simple fact is, whilst intellectually I understood that we had got lucky in 2003 when SARS simply petered out as it did, and that a future virus might be similarly virulent and deadly but spread globally, it is difficult to make headway in explaining this whilst everyone around you treats it as a remote possibility, and at a gut level I didn't believe it myself. I was told a number of times that I was "panicking" and over the top when I warned that schools, shops and so forth might soon  be closed even in mid-February.

The lockdown itself came as much the same kind of thunderbolt as the imposition of the SARS restrictions had for me in 2003, but with the added knowledge that there was nowhere to go to escape it. There was a massive feeling of unreality about the whole thing, though this quickly passed and people did more or less knuckle down to it.

For my own little household, the lockdown was not so bad. Liberated from the commute, working from home meant more time with the family which was very much welcome. Not sending the children to school is obviously not ideal, but online classes, even for our four-year-old, filled a little bit of the gap.  I rediscovered walks along the beach at low-tide, just before sunset.

We are now faced what seems very likely to be a very deep recession. The consequences of this cannot be foreseen, but it is rare for people who find themselves unexpectedly poorer to be happy about it. With eyes diverted away from hotspots like Hong Kong, we are already seeing more assertive moves from the Chinese government. The pessimist in me leads me to expect major ructions both there and in the Taiwan strait in coming years. And there is still the end of the transition period and "full Brexit" yet to come.

Monday, 30 December 2019

"They're selling hippy wigs in Woolworths, man"

"The greatest decade in the history of mankind is over. And as Presuming Ed here has so consistently pointed out, we have failed to paint it black."

From the amazing 1986 movie "Withnail & I".

Happy End Of Decade one and all!

Thursday, 12 December 2019

Thoughts on election day 2019

So, after three years of wavering between glimmers of hope that Brexit might not actually happen, and the crashing realisation that it was still on the cards, we are now within a few hours of the closing of the polls on the day when, if the pollsters are to be believed, Brexit will become locked in and unstoppable.

Historians will likely treat the last three years as a mere interlude before the inevitable carrying out of the result of the referendum. It was nothing of the kind. At various times Brexit could and should have been stopped.

The 2017 election was a golden opportunity to at least soften Brexit to make it palatable to the half of the populace that did not want it to happen, yet Theresa May did not take it. May's downfall and Johnson's bull-headed approach to passing his deal brought another opportunity - to replace his government via a vote of no-confidence with a government of national unity. Again, this opportunity was missed due to a failure to agree on who might lead such a government, with the blame for this failure being fairly attributable to Labour, the Liberal Democrats, and the Conservative rebels.

So here we are, at the end of the worst election campaign in terms of truth that I have ever seen in the UK. One party tells us that they will "Get Brexit Done", a claim that cannot be possibly true in any realistic timescale as our new trading arrangements will take many years to properly negotiate. The other main party insists, for the millionth time at a General Election, that their opponents want to "privatise the National Health Service", something that they have not done in the 9 years they have held power and show not sign of doing now.

Since the polls show that the gap between the two main parties has likely narrowed only by a few percentage points since the start of the campaign it cannot be said that the campaigning of the two parties has achieved much in terms of their relative positions. Instead they have succeeded in squashing their respective third-party rivals, with the Brexit Party's vote essentially evaporating as their supporters opted instead to back the Conservatives, and the Liberal Democrats vote-share being squeezed back down to ~13% from 20% ending the prospect that they might replace Labour as the main party of opposition.

Not only are we headed for Brexit, but we are headed for Brexit in a form far harder, and harmful to the unity of the United Kingdom, than was thought reasonably foreseeable even after the 2016 referendum result. The best that can be hoped for now is that the unfolding realisation that Brexit will be nothing like what was promised might cause the country to reverse course at some point in the future.

In professional terms this shuts down avenues of opportunity without opening any new ones - the patent profession only stands to lose opportunities, not gain them. This week I visited the Unified Patent Court established in London, it's entire purpose put into doubt by the UK's exit from the European Union. Now it seems like a folly, staffed by hundreds of workers whose jobs are in doubt.

My family should be safe enough though, though this makes it more difficult for me to work on the continent should I ever go back there, we were able to navigate the EU Settled Status Scheme application successfully (though I wonder how people without easy access to Adobe Professional and a printer/scanner are supposed to manage in collating all the necessary documents needed for it).

For me, though, the worst impact is simply the feeling that I no longer come from a reasonable, sensible country that can be trusted, generally speaking, to get things right. Perhaps this was always a conceit, but if so it was a comforting one.

Sunday, 11 November 2018

Thoughts For Armistice Day

I could not go myself today to the local war memorial for the two minutes silence, young children do not understand such things and I could not have relied on them to stay quiet. Instead I watched the ceremonies at the Cenotaph on television.

Of the bombastic nationalism that some say surrounds Remembrance day nowadays, there was no sign. Instead the German president laid his wreath next to that of the other assembled dignitaries of a dozen other countries of the Commonwealth under the eyes of the Queen and the assembled veterans.

Today marks the final significant anniversary of the First World War in which there are still people alive who remember the conflict, albeit as children. It demonstrates the process by which that war (and all other events of more than 100 years ago) stops being a lived event and starts being part of a history that people know only from books and television programs.

It is common now to say that, with the passing of the war generation, and without their reservoir of experience and their guidance, we will make the same mistakes that they made. Indeed France's President Macron said as much at today's ceremony in Paris.

I am not so sure this is the case, instead we seem to be inventing a whole new set of new mistakes which the war-generation's wisdom might have advised us against based on lived experience, but the mere knowledge of the historical record of their times does not immunise us against. Brexit is one of these mistakes, Trump another.

And of course, at it's most basic, today's ceremonies reminds us that nothing lasts for ever, not even the conflict that Lloyd George called "the most terrible war that has ever scourged mankind", and that everything eventually passes.

[Picture: Siegfried Sassoon, 1915, via Wiki]

Tuesday, 1 May 2018

The rise and (slight) fall of the "Taiwanese Only" identity

Kharis Templeman, of the Stanford Taiwan Democracy & Security Project, has been pointing out some interesting developments in recent years in Taiwanese attitude surveys. The most striking of these can be seen in the below graph:
Any follower of Taiwanese affairs will be familiar with the decline of the Chinese-only identity in Taiwan since the democratic era began. Whilst possibly it was a minority position even long before this survey began, it fell rapidly during the first decade of Taiwanese democracy until it became the position of only a few percent of the population. At the same time both an exclusively Taiwanese and a mixed Taiwanese and Chinese identity began to be steadily adopted in Taiwan. Until recently the receive wisdom amongst at least part of the expat comentariat was that this mixed position was just a way-station on the road to becoming exclusively Taiwanese, and this found proof in the declining number of people identifying as mixed. However, as the graph shows, this trend has partially reversed over the last four years. What could explain this?

One guess is that increased exposure to mainlanders in Taiwan following the influx of tourists has changed some minds there. My own personal feeling was that, culturally speaking if perhaps not politically speaking, Taiwanese and mainland Chinese were only as different as (depending on how you want to look at it) English and Scottish people, or the people of the UK and the Republic of Ireland, and that increased exposure might highlight these similarities. Whether there is any truth to this is impossible to say without more data.

What there is data to show is that, as Templeman points out, concurrent with the above-described trend, pro-independence sentiment has fallen back a bit, and that pro-pan-green support has also seen a bit of a dip, with both these trends becoming apparent after the DPP's electoral win in 2016. I suppose it is inevitable that the hopes of DPP supporters during the Ma Yingjiu years might take a bit of a knock once the reality of an actual DPP government came about, but I am slightly doubtful that this could be the cause of a change in something so fundamental as how people see their own national identity. There may also be a growing realisation that few of the problems that face Taiwan are actually solved by Taiwanese independence or the development of an exclusively Taiwanese identity.

Friday, 6 April 2018

Eric X. Li: compare and contrast

This is what Eric X. Li said in a recent editorial about the elimination of the term limit for Chinese president in the Washington Post:
"Bringing the presidency’s institutional mechanics in line with the office of party general secretary, and for them to be occupied by the same person, will create a more efficient and coherent governing structure and more transparency and predictability in China’s dealings with the world. It lifts the veil of pretense that, somehow, the party and state governance are not one, which is untrue and wholly unnecessary and counterproductive at this stage of China’s development. It signals the maturing of the Chinese political system that shows the world clearly how decisions are made and who is in charge."
 And this is what he said in a 2013 TED talk about term limits:
"...the party self-corrects in rather dramatic fashions. Institutionally new rules get enacted to correct previous dysfunctions.  For example, term limits. Political leaders used to retain their positions for life, and they used that to accumulate power and perpetuate their rules. Mao was the father of modern China, and yet his prolonged rule led to disastrous mistakes. So the party instituted term limits with mandatory retirement age of 68 to 70."
So term limits were apparently necessary rules needed to correct a dysfunction in 2013 but now their elimination is a sign of the maturing of the Chinese political system?

Li seems to seek to solve this conundrum by fixing on the idea that there is still a retirement age that will limit Xi's rule so he will not rule for life. The problem is that (as Li clearly knows) there is no such actual mandatory retirement age for president, merely ages at which it is customary to retire. Xi will have no more problem in breaking these customary norms than he has in breaking any of the other norms of Chinese governance that have stood in his way. The road is therefore open for him to rule for life if he wishes.

[Kudos to Wukailong of Pacific Rim Shots fame for pointing out the WaPo article and Dylan Matthews on Twitter for finding the TED talk]

Monday, 2 April 2018

Book Review - Deng Xiaoping's Long War: The Military Conflict between China and Vietnam by Xiaoming Zhang

The history of the Sino-Vietnamese conflict that broke out in February 1979 is one of the most neglected parts of modern Chinese history. As such Prof. Xiaoming Zhang's book on the conflict is a very necessary contribution to the field, it being one of the few books - possibly the only book in English at least - to analyse the conflict using sources other than contemporary news reports, and to cover the ten-year period of extended conflict after the 1979 invasion in any detail.

There are at least three major-takeaways from this book for observers of modern Chinese affairs:

- Whilst Vietnam's invasion of Cambodia was a major cause of the war, the idea that China was being surrounded by the Soviet Union, and that war with the USSR was imminent (as Zhang explains, Deng Xiaoping believed that war would likely break out in 1985), was another cause of the war. This has implications for future US-Vietnamese relations, especially if the PRC leadership believes that it makes an attack on Vietnam necessary to demonstrate the inability of Vietnam's allies to protect it.

 - In any future conflict, at least any launched by choice by the PRC leadership, a period of so-called "political mobilisation" is likely to precede any action. Zhang's book explains in detail the efforts that were put into convincing PLA soldiers and the population at large of the necessity of the "Self-defence counter-attack", an attack where the element of surprise was obviously important. This "political mobilisation" seems to have had an effect, given the suicidal nature in which attacks were carried out at times during the conflcit. Whether this might hold true for an attack on Taiwan, when the populace is already indoctrinated to a great degree about the necessity of "Liberating Taiwan" is an open question.

- Whilst the war is almost never mentioned in Chinese media (Zhang even mention allegations of a secret deal between the PRC and Vietnamese leadership not to mention the war) Sino-Vietnamese war veterans have been favoured in promotions to the senior leadership of the PLA. Whilst the war is not mentioned, the people who took part in it are far from shunned.

My main criticism of this book is that it sorely lacks a chapter on the Cambodian aspect of the conflict. It is possible that I have missed it, but Vietnam's motives for invading Cambodia are not described in the book as far as I am aware, nor are the reasons for the PRC's support of the Khmer Rouge regime before the Vietnamese invasion. A description of the course of Vietnam's invasion, and of the campaigns fought against guerrillas by the Vietnamese army would have greatly helped the reader's understanding of why Vietnam was eventually willing to withdraw from Cambodia and make a rapprochement with the PRC. This is particular when, as Zhang points out, Vietnam's "real problem lay in Cambodia", not so much in the ongoing conflict on the Chinese border.

Of course, as Zhang often points out, the Vietnamese archives are not open to academic study, so the material on which a description of the Cambodian conflict might be based is thin. This also applies to the criticism in some reviews of this book of it being overly Sino-centric - ultimately the Vietnamese side of the story is untold as the Vietnamese archives are not available.

Friday, 30 March 2018

Chinese aid: not a bad thing

There's a lot to criticise about the One Belt One Road (AKA BRI) initiative. Particularly concerning is the way in which countries like Laos are apparently being saddled with large sums of debt for the construction of projects, largely by Chinese companies using Chinese resources, which will not benefit the country in a way proportionate to the cost of them.

It is however worth emphasising that Chinese aid is generally a good thing, that it has aided countries in need and helped boost growth. Here's a recent Washington Post piece pointing out the benefits that Chinese official aid (ODA, as opposed to more commerically motivated aid) has brought:

AidData's research has shown when Chinese funding is similar to ODA, it boosts economic growth in recipient countries just like Western aid. If a country is on the receiving end of such a Chinese aid project, it will see 0.4 percent average growth two years after the project is committed — a similar rate of growth to aid from the United States and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development's (OECD) Development Assistance Committee (and notably higher than aid from the World Bank).
Indeed, as the WaPo story points out, if anything the PRC government is guilty of hindering the spread of the good news about this by surrounding aid in secrecy.

Sunday, 11 March 2018

So much for "internal democracy"

The idea that China did have a form of democracy, albeit one contained within the Chinese Communist Party, is often spoke about, particularly in response to criticism of the undemocratic nature of Chinese governance. Here's an example from a 2017 editorial in the Global Times:
"China has established its own democratic system with Chinese characteristics in its pursuit of national independence and prosperity, and social progress, a fruitful result of its democratic building that has been deeply influenced by the country's historical and cultural traditions and domestic conditions."
 The reality? Well, let's look at yesterday's vote on whether or not to extend Xi Jinping's rule potentially for life:
"Applause rippled through the auditorium as Xi cast his vote, using two hands to place a salmon-coloured ballot into a bright red box at 3.24pm. A further 2,957 ballots were cast in favour of the change while three delegates abstained and two voted against, a small hint of the outrage the move has caused in some liberal circles."
 This gets even worse when you consider that the single vote against confirming Xi as leader for the next five years in 2013 may well have been his own, cast in an effort to make the vote look more democratic. The two votes against here may have been cast with similar intent.

"Internal democracy" should join the other theories about high-level Chinese governance for which there is no actual indisputable on-the-ground-evidence.

Sunday, 25 February 2018

Xi Jinping: ruler for life.

Today's news unveiling of plans to amend the Chinese constitution to allow Xi Jinping (and, not that it really matters, PRC VP Li Yuanchao) to serve more than two terms should not come as any kind of surprise to anyone who has been following the developments of the last seven years in China. Here's what I wrote about his assent to power,then already in process, in 2011:
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 [i.e., of Ai Weiwei and others] 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.
We are now seeing this totalitarianism taking form. The weak and nascent organs of civil society (e.g., civil rights groups like Gongmeng) that managed to grow during the early Hu years have been eliminated or co-opted in a process that began even before Xi officially took power, internal opponents within the CCP have been wiped out by an "anti-corruption" campaign the real purpose of which was the elimination of Xi's opponents within the party, Xi Jinping has been declared a "Core leader" and had his ideology enshrined in every communist party document which matters - essentially he has been declared the equivalent of a red god whilst still being early in his reign.

 It is now that the failure to implement any real political reforms during the Jiang/Hu years really begins to bite. Deng merely set aside many of the tools of Mao's dictatorship, but they remained for a later generation to pick up and use. Xi has been compared to Putin, which is a very fair comparison, but even Putin has not yet dared to actually amend the Russian constitution to allow himself more than two consecutive terms, preferring instead to use Medvedev as his puppet president for a term.

 The real question that should be on everyone's mind is: what is it that Xi plans to do with this power? Some leaders would be content merely to continue consolidation of power - gaining power for power's sake - but is Xi one of those leaders, or does he have something else in mind? If instead what Xi wants is to write his name into history, then it is time for people in Taiwan and elsewhere to sit up, take notice, and prepare themselves.

Sunday, 28 January 2018


It may have been a cold January day here in the UK, but yesterday brought a little more warmth into our corner of the world - 7 lbs and 13 ounces of it to be precise. Right now she's a quiet little girl but I'm sure she'll find her voice and will make herself heard in the world.

Saturday, 18 November 2017

A Dead Duck

Richard Burger, ur-China blogger amongst ur-China bloggers (I think only Hemlock of the Big Lychee Blog has been going longer, and he writes mainly about Hong Kong) is finally shuttering his blog after 15 years of writing.

I've been reading his blog since at least 2006, and Richard has been kind enough to occasionally host my posts there. It has always been an interesting discussion forum and I'll miss the raucous debates that used to be a regular feature of it.