Wednesday 27 April 2011

Friends like these . . .

Today marked the death of someone for whom your first reaction on hearing of their demise is not pity, or regret, but surprise that they had lived so long. Madame Ngô Đình Nhu, born Trần Lệ Xuân, outlived by a long span the South Vietnamese Republic which, before her husband's assassination, she both lorded over and was a symbol of. She was a singularly unlikeable person. From the Guardian obituary:

"She accumulated vast wealth and power, but was reviled for her puritanical social campaigns and her callous dismissal of Buddhist monks who burned themselves to death to protest against the brutal rule of Diem and her husband Ngo Dinh Nhu. "I would clap hands at seeing another monk barbecue show, for one cannot be responsible for the madness of others," she wrote in a letter to the New York Times. The world was stunned by photographs of monks sitting shrouded in flames; Madame Nhu simply offered to bring along some mustard for the next self-immolation. She later accused monks of lacking patriotism for setting themselves alight with imported petrol."

With the exception of the Chiang Kai Shek-era KMT, it is hard to find an example of such a dubious ally for the US to embrace, yet both the Eisenhower and the Kennedy administration committed themselves to the continued rule of Diem and his consort. Diem, who rose to power following an absurdly rigged referendum on the establishment of a republic, was initially widely praised for his stand against the communism that had seized power in the north of the country. LBJ even called him "the Churchill of Asia".

In truth, however, the corrupt and venal nature of Diem and his family shocked even the people of Vietnam, who, having lived under the rule of the colonial French and the puppet-emperor Bao Dai, were no strangers to corruption. Far from being able to show results in his battle with the Viet Cong, Diem steadily lost control of country to the insurgents. Insurgents who, according to the reports of US Army observer (and compulsive philanderer) John Paul Vann, were largely being armed by desertions and the capturing of weapons from government troops.

In the end, due both to the continued reversals suffered by Diem's forces on the battlefield, and to the increasing unpopularity of Diem and his wife both in Vietnam and in the US, the Kennedy administration turned against Diem, and connived with the South Vietnamese military to remove him from power. The reign of Diem ended in early November, 1963, with his assassination at the hands of his own people, just days before Lee Harvey Oswald's bullets did the same to the Kennedy administration. Having so utterly broken the always-fragile South Vietnam, it was never possible to put it back together again. 50,000 dead US soldiers and more than a million dead Vietnamese were the eventual result of this rupture.

The comparison with today's situation in Afghanistan is obvious. Kabul's Karzai regime is corrupt, and kept in power by NATO bombs and stuffed ballots. Less obvious, perhaps, is the way in which there seem even fewer alternatives to Karzai than there were to Diem, and the result of trying to impose regime change is as likely to result in disaster. The true lesson of Diem and his wife is that, once you become committed to a side of a conflict, trying to exchange that party for someone conforming more closely to your own publicly-professed ideals is likely to merely exchange a corrupt client for an ineffectual puppet. The best that can be hoped is that, once some level of stability is acheived, as it was following the KMT withdrawal to Taiwan, and now appears to be being acheived in Iraq, that reforms may be engendered from within with the help of gentle pressure from without.

Either that, or leave them to their well-deserved fate.

[Picture: Madame Nhu speaks to then-US Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson, 12th of May, 1961. Via Wikicommons]

Hat-tip to my good friend The Writing Baron for sharing Madame Nhu's obituary

Thursday 21 April 2011

Compare and contrast

Here's Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei excusing Ai Weiwei's imprisonment for what has now been almost three weeks without charge:

And here's US State Department spokesman Mark Toner excusing the refusal of US authorities to grant private, unmonitored access to the UN Special Rapporteur to Bradley Manning, currently in prison awaiting trial on charges including "aiding the enemy":

This is not to draw any kind of general equivalence between the wrong-doings of their respective governments. However, if the United States is going to say that it has "nothing to hide" and then refuse to grant unmonitored access to people who in any other country would be called political prisoners, then the differences between it and China are not as big as you would otherwise think.

Tell us how you really feel

This comment in a thread on the 1860 burning of the Summer Palace from Jxie, US resident and regular blogger at Hidden Harmonies, tells you everything you need to know about the tone of the discussion on that blog nowadays:

". . . I am OK with the looted art pieces being displaced in some foreign museums or auctioned off, but I am also perfectly OK with on a future day Chinese burning down London and Paris."

It would be easy to dismiss this kind of extremism as mere posing. The fact is, though, that some among the Chinese nationalists genuinely feel this way.

Sunday 17 April 2011

China And The New Cuba

Yesterday, just days after their celebration of the 50th anniversary of their victory over a CIA-backed amphibious invasion at the Bay of Pigs, the Cuban Communist party held their first congress since 1997. At the congress, Raul Castro, brother of Fidel Castro who commanded the communist forces at the Bay of Pigs and ruled Cuba for 49 years until stepping down in 2008, announced a series of far-reaching political and economic reforms.

Anyone who knows the Chinese political system that has been in place since Deng Xiaoping's time will find the reforms very familiar. Most particularly, the limiting of the paramount leadership - both the president and the head of the Communist Party - to a maximum of two five-year terms announced by Castro, is the one reform which has ensued that China has not fallen into the kind of crypto-monarchical system that has afflicted North Korea. In the case of China this ten-year limit is not law but merely a matter of custom, but Raul Castro intends to go a step further and enshrine it in the Cuban constitution.

In other areas, though, Castro is not going as far as the Chinese, with ownership of property being limited to a single plot, and business ownership being limited to SMEs. Whilst Cuba enjoys a nominal per capita GDP significantly higher than China, and has seen reasonably high growth in recent years (see graph above, or here) it is uncertain whether these reforms, which still very much place the emphasis on the "state" part of the "state capitalism" formula, will be enough to ensure continued growth.

It is worth noting that Cuban nominal GDP per capita is roughly comparable to that of some other non-communist countries in the region. At at estimated* value of 5,200 US Dollars, Cuban GDP per capita in 2010 was roughly the same as that of the Dominican Republic, and higher than that of Jamaica (4,800 US Dollars). However, Cuban economic performance begins appears poor next to those countries in the region that have successfully developed tourism and resource-extraction industries, like Trinidad and Tobago (17,300 US Dollars) and the Bahamas (24,300 US Dollars).

That Castro should in some ways imitate the Chinese is not surprising. The Chinese have been the most successful at combining the Leninist political system with market reform, and, more importantly no doubt from the point of view of Castro and his comrades, have been very successful so far in "revolution proofing" their regime. This said, Cuba is not China, and the histories of its regional neighbours suggest that rather than Chinese-style state capitalism, a greater focus on tourism might pay off, but this would require a more liberal society than seems possible under the communists, and would require the lifting of at least some elements of the US embargo.

*All estimates taken from the CIA World Factbook nominal GDP figures for 2010.

[Picture: Raul Castro with Che Guevara, Cuba, 1958. Via Wikicommons]

Friday 15 April 2011

The one where FOARP goes all Meeja

Now that I've finally managed to get my TV connection up and running here in Wrocław, Poland, I've been spending my mornings before going to work sipping my tea in front of BBC World. The advantage of watching the BBC in the UK is that, due to what the BBC insists on calling "the unique way in which [they] are funded" (i.e., a yearly tax on every television-watching household in the country) the only adverts it includes are for its own programming.

Not so overseas, where the BBC includes commercial advertising. For some reason this advertising comes almost entirely from the business/tourism ministries of countries which are seeking to boost their images, so I thought I'd do a round up of some of the most "remarkable", assessed according to my totally arbitrary scoring system:

"Remarkable Indonesia"

  • Simple rule of thumb: if you're in a country that needs to advertise how "politically stable" it is, keep your passport handy and don't go too far from the airport. A flak jacket might also be a sensible investment. (-30)
  • "Take a look at us now"? This ad is waaaaaaay too defensive. If you think people used to think of your country as a 3rd world toilet, it's best not to reference this in your advertising. (-30)
  • The first twenty seconds of the ad looks like an advert for herbal shampoo (-10)
  • Really, the best thing you could say about your country was that it's "Remarkable"? You do know that this isn't even necessarily positive don't you? (-5)
  • The grammar/logic nazi in me finds something objectionable about the sentence: "an emerging global powerhouse in Asia". I can't put my finger on what it is, but I'll mark you down anyway (-5)
  • Errmmm . . . I guess it's got some nice looking scenery in it (+20)
Score: -60
Verdict: Remarkably Bad.

"Azerbaijan - A Land of Magic Colours"

  • Some parts of your country remind me of levels from Battlefield 2 (-5)
  • Some parts of your country remind me of levels from Battlefield 2 (+20)
  • "Land Of Magic Colours"? Sounds like you can totally score drugs there (+20)
  • The whole magic carpet motif is awesome (+20)
Score: +55
Verdict: Civil war? Rigged elections? Who cares about that stuff?

"Taiwan - The Heart of Asia"

  • Inexplicably wastes time on the previous slogan "touch your heart" (-5)
  • I'm not so sure about an advert for a real place which is entirely animated (-10)
  • Blissfully short (+20)
  • Distinct and quirky, just like the real place (+35)
Score: +40
Verdict: About as good as can be expected from a place which cannot even display its flag at a children's sporting event without getting attacked.

"Ukraine - all about U"

  • Annoying use of "U" to represent "you". This is on the level of companies which switch the "s" at the end of words for a "z" in a lame attempt to look cool (-10)
  • "Remember those nuclear-tipped rockets which you guys in the west spent most of the 80's scared stiff about? Well, we built them" (-10)
  • Not exactly sure what message this ad is trying to put across, but then maybe I'm not the target audience (-10)
  • Rockets! Cool! (+20)
  • Gratuitous hot chick, not sure what that has to do with anything, but hey (+40)
Score: +30
Verdict: Whatever good effect this ad may have had was cancelled out by the report from Chernobyl after the break . . .

Overall winner: Azerbaijan

Final note: All these countries have public-image issues which they are trying to overcome. The problem with at least some of them is that they try to engage the issues head-on rather than ignoring them and concentrating on the cool stuff. At it's heart, good advertising is not too different from good propaganda. It cannot succeed by simply telling you that the ideas that it wishes to counter are wrong, but must instead give you something believable in place of that idea. You don't need to work in the meeja to understand this.

Wednesday 13 April 2011

The Global Times: Astroturfing Operation [Updated]

Remember the Global Times journalist whose tweets announced, in what is beginning to look like a "Hundred Flowers" campaign-style bait-and-switch, that the Global Times had decided that everything other than the private lives of the leadership could be reported on? His Twitter name was Wen Tommy, but his real name is Wen Tao, and he was fired soon after making those tweets.

He reportedly has not been seen since the day that Ai Weiwei disappeared, and we can therefore only assume that, being a friend and assistant of Ai Weiwei, was arrested at the same time as him. His ex-colleagues reaction? According to the sources of Richard Burger, a former editor at the Global Times, their response has been to launch an internet astroturfing campaign justifying the arrest of Ai and others:

"Nine days ago, Hu Xijin, the editor in chief of The Global Times, assembled all of the Chinese staff into the paper’s large conference room and shut the door. As is nearly always the case with such meetings, the expats, known as “foreign experts,” were not permitted inside.

Hu had a direct and simple order for his shock troops staff: They were to go to their desks and seek out any Chinese comment threads, any discussions on Chinese BBS’s and portals and blogs — any discussion on the Internet at all — about the detention of Ai Weiwei and counter them with the party line, as expressed so clearly and ominously in a recent Global Times editorial, namely that Ai Weiwei is a self-appointed maverick who deserves to be detained, and who is being used by hostile Western powers to embarrass, hurt and destabilize China. This was not a request, it was a direct order. It was compulsory."

Richard Burger's piece is excellent and I advise you to go and read it if you haven't already. I particularly agree with this passage:

"Go out and do your thing, Global Times 50-centers. While a lot of people will be fooled, enough will see through the propaganda. I admire the young aspiring journalists I worked with there two years ago. If any of you are reading this (which is not very likely), I urge you to think for yourselves, and understand that while journalists have several roles, astroturfing message boards isn’t one of them."
(my emphasis)

There's a difference between running a newspaper and a propaganda operation. During its short existence the Global Times has winked at both, containing humorous satire which we could not be sure was understood by the editorial team, and direct parroting of the party line. It is now clear, though, on which side the Global Times's bread is buttered.

[Edit] Two more things before I go:

- It's worth bearing in mind that Ai, described by the Global Times as a "Maverick" who "will pay a price for his special choice", was reportedly offered CPPCC membership just days before his disappearance. If true, the sheer cynicism of this is just astounding.

- I'd like to say a few words to any of the foreign staff of China Daily, Global Times, China Radio International, CCTV 9, 21st Century, Shanghai Daily and other media outlets owned by the CCP or over which it exercises ultimate editorial control who may be reading this -

Yes, I get that what you guys may be working on may have nothing to do with politics. You may be working solely on sports, society, or arts pieces. I also get that your prescence within the place you are working may, in your view, have a beneficial effect, or at least be value-neutral. I also understand that a lot of you see your work as a temporary gig that will help kick-start your career in media, which I think everyone knows is a difficult business to get into.

But consider this - by working for these outlets you are lending them an air of credibility which they may not deserve. Even the humorous pieces which the people at Global Times occasionally get through are a double-edged sword, since they allow the editors to act as if they're in on the joke even if they weren't. Whatever beneficial things you do should be weighed against this potential harm.

Of course, it may be that, like Chris Gelken, formerly of CCTV 9 and latter at CRI, you actually largely agree with the editorial line uniformly applied across these publications by the censors. Or it may be that, like Edwin Maher, you subscribe to the morally bankrupt proposition that by propagating propaganda you are not in some way responsible for its dissemination. If, however, this does not apply to you, it would be unfortunate if people were to simply decide that it does on the basis that no-one could work for these organisations without holding such views.

Tuesday 12 April 2011

The Undoing Of 1979

"Street heats
the urgency of now . . ."

It's now more than 32 years since China launched its program of "Reform and Opening", and in three days it will have been 22 years since the death of Hu Yaobang, which lead eventually to the Tiananmen uprising. Both of these events stand as sign posts in recent Chinese history although at the time the true significance of these events would have been very unclear. One of them marked the beginning of economic liberalisation. The other the suspension of real hope for political liberalisation, and the transformation of China into its present form.

At the risk of making a hostage to fortune, I'm going to hazard a guess at saying that this year marks another such inflection point in Chinese affairs. The events this year so far in China auger the final abandonment of political change, and the beginning of the end of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in its present part-dynamo, part-dinosaur form.

Why do I say this? In the career of every prize fighter there comes a point when the crowd, which a moment ago was roaring approval, draws a little breath as a jab sails through thin air and misses it mark, and a doubt is planted in the mind of all those watching that can only grow as time does its work. The CCP as it stands today has, I believe, reached this point with its latest crackdown.

Whilst they were simply imprisoning nobodies, quixotic individuals who even China politics geeks like myself could hardly remember the names of, none of these arrests rocked the boat, even if they did involve Nobel laureates. The arrest of Ai Weiwei, though, is a different matter. In contrast to Liu Xiaobo, Ai Weiwei is well known, both as an artist and as an eccentric.

The economic crimes excuse that is being pushed right now will not convince many - even if it were true, the questions would then be asked: Why Ai? Why now? A line of thought which leads to some familiar questions: Who? Whom?

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP), which for years has walked a tight-rope between along the line between inflicting so much repression on people that they rebel and so little that they become unafraid of the party, now shows signs of over-balancing itself. People who it had managed to silence, like Zhao Lianhai, have now redoubled their criticism, perhaps seeing that they have little to lose in doing so since they stand to be next in line after Ai.

This crackdown risks exposing the CCP leadership as never having genuinely supported reform, at least not in the past ten years. Without the carrot of reform, the CCP has only the crude stick of oppression and the bitter offerings of nationalism with which to coral the populace. This will convince some, but not all.

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.

[Picture: Deng Xiaoping with President Carter during a visit to the United States, 31 January, 1979. Via Wikipedia]

Wednesday 6 April 2011

Where Are The Reformists?

Part of the great treasure-trove of document disclosed by Wikileaks last December was this report of discussion between a political officer at the US Embassy in Beijing and an undisclosed contact, in which the leadership is described as, venal, corrupt, and lacking any kind of reform wing:

xxxxx asserted to PolOff [Political Officer] March 12 that the Party should be viewed primarily as a collection of interest groups. There was no "reform wing," xxxxx claimed.xxxxx made the same argument in several discussions with PolOff over the past year, asserting that China's top leadership had carved up China's economic "pie," creating an ossified system in which "vested interests" drove decision-making and impeded reform as leaders maneuvered to ensure that those interests were not threatened. It was "well known," xxxxx stated, that former
Premier Li Peng and his family controlled all electric power interests; PBSC [Politburo Standing Committee] member and security czar Zhou Yongkang and associates controlled the oil interests; the late former top leader Chen Yun's family controlled most of the PRC's banking sector; PBSC member and Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference Chairman Jia Qinglin was the main interest behind major Beijing real estate developments; Hu Jintao's son-in-law ran; and Wen Jiabao's wife controlled China's precious gems sector.


xxxxx, separately described leadership alignments at the top of the CCP as shaped largely by one's "princeling" [i.e., descendant of the first generation of communist leaders] or "shopkeeper" [i.e., bureaucrat who came up through the ranks] lineage"

Granted, this is a leaked precis of a discussion with an unidentified Chinese source written by a US diplomat with no reason to be sympathetic to the Chinese government. However, the recent wave of arrests of Chinese dissidents, including Ai Weiwei, does lend this interpretation some credence. Morevoer, it is somewhat in keeping with the history of other Chinese dictatorships, particularly that of the communist party's immediate predecessors, the Nationalists, whose farming off of state concerns to family connections and essential running of the state as a family business was notorious.

Rather than the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) top leadership being divided between reformists and hardliners, as people like, for example, Nick Young have argued, instead it is dominated by people whose main interest is to secure their piece of the PRC pie - some of whom have the advantage of family history. These people will attempt to silence anyone who, like Liu Xiaobo, threatens this by advocating reform which might result in them losing their share of the big PRC carve-up.

This theory leads to an interesting conclusion: Rather than criticism from overseas making it harder for reformers to do their work, instead it helps to highlight the venality of the leadership, and silencing criticism would simply cut off the last source of assistance that those trapped in the present crack-down have.

[Note: Thanks to "Slim" whose comment lead me to the Wikileaks document in question and whose analysis this piece owes much to]

Tuesday 5 April 2011

"Ungrounded in science, unsupportable when challenged, and wildly wrong": George Monbiot Blasts The Anti-Nuclear Movement

I haven't looked much at the issue of the safety of nuclear power since university, when I wrote a paper on nuclear safety which stated that the exact accident which caused the current crisis at Fukushima was virtually impossible - a somewhat embarassing mistake I'm sure you'll agree. However, whilst researching that paper I did read through quite a bit of literature written by anti-nuclear power lobbyists.

My impression of most of it was that it was scare-mongering (one leaflet even warned of an "nuclear secret police"), that it was unscientific (little in way of real, reliable statistics were ever mentioned) and that it failed to distinguish between nuclear reactors and nuclear weapons, often eliding from one into the other. I remember one anti-nuclear campaigner making the claim of a proposed nuclear power station in East Anglia that it threatened to "lay waste" to the entirety of East Anglia (an area of 16,000 square kilometres - much larger than even the "zone of alienation" around the badly-designed Chernobyl plant).

It is therefore with some pleasure that I read arch-green George Monbiot's brilliant piece excoriating the unscientific approach of the anti-nuclear lobby in today's Guardian. I heartily advise you to go and read it.

The only thing I would add to what George Monbiot says in his piece is this: the central crux of much of the conjecture about the possibly side-effects of radiation exposure is the unknown effect of extreme low-level radiation.

When you read studies of the estimated increase in incidents of cancer or other diseases caused by radiation release, much of this will be based on the idea that the effect of radiation is linear. That is to say, that extremely low amounts of radiation cause illness in proportion to greater amounts of radiation the side-effects of which are known. However, this is not known, and there are biological mechanisms which might easily repair small amounts of damage caused by low-level radiation but not the much larger amounts of damage caused by high radiation.

Moreover, as Monbiot points out, ascribing illnesses which have no known link to radiation to nuclear accidents is unacceptable. Especially as increased rates of these illnesses were not seen even in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Finally, in deciding the acceptability of nuclear power, it is necessary to compare the loss of life that might be caused by the adoption of alternate sources of power. Whilst renewable sources seem likely to cause the least health problems, no power grid can rely entirely on solar, wave, and wind power, at least without a proper means of storing energy for those times when there is no sun, wind, or waves. In the absence of hydroelectric power, this leaves either fossil fuels, or nuclear energy. Fossil fuels have known costs in terms of climate change, pollution, and deaths caused during extraction. Nuclear energy also has a known cost, perhaps low relative to that of fossil fuels, but this should not be artificially inflated.

[Picture: A comparison of a Light Water Reactor (LWR) and the RMBK (reaktor bolshoy moshchnosti kanalniy - "High Power Channel-type Reactor") used at Chernobyl. The description reads "The critical differences in the RBMK reactor compared to a LWR (Light Water Reactor) that directly contributed to the Chernobyl disaster. 1. The flamable graphite moderator in the reactor core that burned in the fire, 2. The positive void coefficient in the water that made possible the power peak that blew the reactor vessel, 3. The control rods were very slow, they took 18-20 seconds to be inserted into the reactor. Moreover they had graphite tips that actually intensified the fission chain reaction in the beginning of the insertion. 4. No containment building at all". Via Wikicommons.]

Monday 4 April 2011

The Disappeared

It seems that there is no let-up in the crackdown on Chinese dissidents, one which both preceded the flash-in-the-pan Chinese "Jasmine Revolution", and is continuing after it has fizzled. The latest victim: internationally renowned artist Ai Weiwei, whose sunflower seed display I went to see in London last year, and whose defiance towards the Chinese dictatorship has become steadily more forthright in recent years.

It seems that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has taken Ai up on the offer he made two years ago when the state security services called him over for a little chat:

"Here’s a few words: Don’t come again to find me, I will not cooperate. If you must come, then bring your instrument of punishment."

This list compiled by Custer over at the Chinageeks website tells the sorry tale of those human rights activists known to have been arrested or detained so far. The only thing I can add to what has been said by others is:

1) Given the past track-record of the CCP in this regard, do not expect an end to this crackdown any time soon. It would be natural for people to assume this is connected to next year's scheduled hand-over of power from the Hu/Wen team to the likely Xi/Li partnership. This ignores the natural logic that such things take on - once a justification, however lame, has been found for imprisioning someone, no-one is going to admit that they have made a mistake.

2) This is the real face of the CCP. Some in the China commentariat have spent years telling us that change is just around the corner with the rise of a new generation of foreign-educated leadership, and that anyway the dictatorial powers of imprisonment without trial, censorship, etc. were merely a vestigial remnant of the past which would gradually wither away. The truth is that the CCP had no intention of giving up these powers - it's existence relies on them, and there is no sign that the CCP wishes to dismiss itself from power, foreign educated or not.

3) Many have also spoken of a moderate faction within the CCP. At the moment, the best that can be said is that if this moderate faction exists, evidence of its influence is somewhat lacking.

4) Some have gotten rather depressed about this, even abandoning all hope of improvement in the situation in China, and expats among them have started talking about leaving the country*. Personally I think this is overblown. China, whilst certainly richer, is still much the same country it was when I first arrived there in 2003. If your presence in a place is predicated on it turning into something radically different, this is a somewhat foolish position to have.

[Picture: "Remembering" an installation by Ai Wei Wei displayed at his "So Sorry" exhibition at Haus der Kunst, Munich, January 2010. The display is made up entirely of school rucksacks, which spell out "Seven years, she lived happily on this Earth", a quote from the mother of a child killed when her poorly-constructed school collapsed during the Sichuan Earthquake. Via Wikicommons.]

*Jg is not actually planning on leaving the country. He's just pissed off.

Sunday 3 April 2011

Death of a Peace-Maker

Yesterday's bombing in Omagh, County Tyrone, likely by republican dead-enders, killed Ronan Kerr, a catholic police officer. That the republicans should apparently target someone who has been described as "a peacemaker" shows yet again that the worst enemies of extremism are those within the group that they claim to represent who take a less extreme path.

After the last such attack was roundly condemned by all sides of the dispute in Northern Ireland, a friend of mine said over a few beers in a London pub that this meant that the terrorists were finished. I was not, and cannot be so optimistic.

The guns and bombs that flowed into Northern Ireland during the troubles have not all been handed over, and can be refreshed at a moments notice. The history of Northern Ireland has seen long lulls in terrorists activity in the past, particularly during the 50's. Splinter groups can also blossom into fully-fledged movements of their own. Indeed, the organisation that we called the "IRA" in the 80's was in fact only the "Provisional IRA" - a splinter group of the organisation which called a ceasefire in 1972. The only real hope of lasting peace is in the kind of reconciliation between Northern Irish Catholics and protestants that Ronan Kerr represented.

[Picture: The "peace wall" separating protestant and Catholic communities along Bombay Street, Belfast, taken from the Catholic side. Via Wikicommons.]

Saturday 2 April 2011

Where Mao is Mickey Mouse

Just saw the best explanation I've ever read as to why people won't turn on the Chinese Communist Party just because they have (limited) access to uncensored reportage on, and criticism of, the Chinese government via the internet:

"Think of it this way. You’re a kid. You’ve wanted to go to Disney World your entire life. Grew up watching the cartoons, the movies. Had the shirt. Had the hat. One day, your parents finally take you. And the next thing you know, you’re inside the park, next in line for Space Mountain, and some guy comes up to you. Hey kid, Mickey Mouse is one bad dude, he says. How about you get out of line (pun intended), kick Mickey in the shin, and burn his house down?"

I honestly can't remember whether I thought access to criticism on the internet would ever automatically spell doom for the Chinese government before I arrived in China in early 2003. I don't think I did, but if I had, a few month there certainly gave me the impression that this was not the case.

This said, it has helped in the toppling of the Tunisian and Egyptian dictatorships, neither of which were so much worse than the CCP for us to automatically dismiss the idea that a similar thing could happen in China.

[Picture: A sculpture by Frank Kozik entitled "Bird is the Word". From Neatorama.]