Sunday 20 September 2009

One rapid but fairly sure guide to the social atmosphere of a country is the parade-step of its army. A military parade is really a kind of ritual dance, something like a ballet, expressing a certain philosophy of life. The goose-step, for instance, is one of the most horrible sights in the world, far more terrifying than a dive-bomber. It is simply an affirmation of naked power; contained in it, quite consciously and intentionally, is the vision of a boot crashing down on a face. Its ugliness is part of its essence, for what it is saying is ‘Yes, I am ugly, and you daren’t laugh at me’, like the bully who makes faces at his victim. Why is the goose-step not used in England? There are, heaven knows, plenty of army officers who would be only too glad to introduce some such thing. It is not used because the people in the street would laugh.

- George Orwell, The Lion and the Unicorn

[Video: Chinese militia drill in preparation for the celebration of the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China]

Saturday 19 September 2009

The Taiwan Timewarp

Having worked in mainland China for a firm that required me to keep at least one toe in Taiwan, I am used to contrasting one with the other, and almost always in a way favouring the free and democratic land of Taiwan. This time around, though, I cannot say that the comparison has been quite so favourable to the island across the straits. Going from the break-neck pace of development in Shenzhen to a place where in many areas both wages and prices seem to have been almost at a stand-still since 2001 was quite a surprise. Yes, a high-speed railway has been completed and green energy projects have been undertaken, but even accounting for the fact that Taiwan is an economically developed society in which much less needs doing, in comparison to the mainland Taiwan feels locked in a timewarp in which nothing changes - is this fair?

Tuesday 15 September 2009

Two years

[Picture: The view from my hotel widow in Longhua, on the outskirts of Shenzhen, overlooking the as-yet unfinished subway link with Hong Kong]

That's how long I had been away from China when I got back there for a quick visit at the start of last month. The changes?

1) Within 24 hours of crossing the border into Shenzhen I had five people independently and without prompting tell me that they hated the communist party and wanted to be rid of them. Particular ire was directed at ex-president Jiang Zemin. Given the number of campaigns designed to 'increase patriotism' that have occurred over the past two years you would have thought that support for the government would have increased. In the small sample of people who I met in Shenzhen the reality was emphatically the opposite.

2) Following a successful strike (euphemistically labelled 'a collective tea-time') the taxis outside the system of checkpoints which surrounds the centre of Shenzhen now all work off the meter, charging a basic 15 RMB per ride. Let me emphasise here that the metered rate is set by local government, and how unlikely such a strike being successful would have seemed two years ago. I guess I should add that of the five people mentioned above, two were taxi drivers.

3) Development. Everywhere I looked I saw large-scale projects which had not even started two years ago but which had already been completed in the meantime, areas which were dusty and vacant lots two years ago but which are now bustling communities. Longhua, where I formerly lived and worked, is to be the central hub for transportation links in and out of Shenzhen, with a direct connection to the Hong-Kong subway.

4) The future. Two years ago people were still trying to understand the Hu/Wen team. Now people are already looking forward to the new team which will most likely come to power when the current government's term ends in 2012. Xi Jinping remains the front-runner, but to many this by itself may be considered reason enough to dismiss him. Sitting down to dinner with a factory-owning friend of mine along with some other well-heeled Shenzhen-ites (the richest person there? A fortune teller), the consensus was that, given the rise of a politically-conscious middle-class, the next government would simply have to make political concessions, and that these would be the end of communist rule. I take all this with a pinch of salt (the same friend swore blind to me that Ma Yingjiu would never be Taiwanese president), but I can't say that I don't hope it's true.

Malaysia: 52 years of independence, 49 years of the ISA

[Picture: The Malaysian flag flies high over Independence Square, Kuala Lumpur, where I was stopped and questioned by a plain-clothes member of the 'Tourist Police']

Just as an example of how you can sometimes be right in the middle of a big event without even realising that anything is happening, a few weeks back I was in Kuala Lumpur when large-scale demonstrations broke out against the Internal Securities Act - a law passed in 1960 which allows detention without trial for a period of up to two years. The act is itself a continuation of colonial-era legislation brought in during the Malayan Emergency, in which British, colonial, and Malaysian troops successfully defeated a communist insurgency. However the first I knew about it was when I bought the (clearly censored) local English-language papers the next day and saw this headline:

Detention without trial under ordinary circumstances is an offence against human rights if it exceeds a period of even a few days, Britain and other democracies have slipped from that that standard in the war against terror. However, the ISA is a clear example of how, once such powers are granted to the state, they can stay on the books for a very long time - long after their supposed original purpose has ceased to be relevent.