Sunday 26 August 2012

Doesn't everyone know who Neil Armstong is?

One of the biggest surprises I had during my time in China came during my first year there when I taught English in Nanjing. I was giving a class of first year accountancy students a quiz as their final lesson of the term, and one of the questions was "Who was the first man on the moon?".

Collecting the results at the end I was surprised to find that no-one had even tried to answer it. The students weren't the best English-speakers in the school, but they certainly understood the question. I did wonder if they just didn't know the Roman-script version of his name, but none even attempted to write it in Chinese characters. In the end it appeared that no-one actually knew the answer to the question, a question that most British school children knew the answer to. My guess was just that Armstrong wasn't much of a hero in China - or was it something else?

Thursday 16 August 2012

What Sun Yat-Sen has to tell us about the Assange case

Anyone following the case of Julian Assange, currently in hiding in the Ecuadorian embassy, will have found out that he has today been offered asylum by Ecuador.

Just like many people who have followed this case, I've gone from being sympathetic to Assange to being rather dubious of his version of events. Particularly the argument that he should not be extradited to Sweden because he may be extradited from there to the United States is deeply unconvincing, for the very simple reason that it would be much easier to just extradite him directly from the UK.

All the same, the idea that, in order to arrest him and execute his extradition to Ecuador, the UK government might revoke the diplomatic status of the Ecuadorian embassy is, frankly, about as misguided as it is possible to be. The effect of doing so would be to render any aid the UK's diplomatic missions abroad might lend to people in genuine need of shelter utterly ineffective. All the authorities in Beijing, Pyongyang, Tehran, Damascus, Havana, Minsk, or Caracas need do is point to the actions of the UK government in this case, close our embassy, and drag whoever it was that was misguided enough to place their trust in the UK off to a dismal fate.

Moreover, the name of Britain would be mud across the continent of South America and in much of the rest of the world. Political capital is already being made out of this case by the authorities in Quito.

The reasons why the law under which this revocation would be carried out was enacted go back to the killing of WPC Yvonne Fletcher (pictured above) by a gunman firing at demonstrators from the window of the Libyan embassy in London in 1984. In that incident, the siege of the embassy (and a counter-siege of the British embassy in Tripoli, as well as the taking hostage of British citizens in Libya) was eventually resolved by the government allowing the people responsible for WPC Fletcher's murder to leave the country, and then breaking off relations with Libya.

This suggests a clear course of action which appears the most advisable given the circumstances. Let Assange go to Ecuador. Let the tax-payers keep his bail-money. Let Ecuador then deal with the problems of sheltering this man just as France and Switzerland have dealt with the problems of sheltering Roman Polanski. Let the Swedish government, who have historically acknowledged either few or no obligations to the UK, priding themselves in their even-handed neutrality in all matters, make shift for themselves.

This option, though, seems to have been fore-closed by the British government's statement that they are prevented from doing so by a 'binding obligation' to Sweden. This, if it is genuinely the case, is very unfortunate.

If, due to European legislation, this approach is no longer open to the government, then a long, hard reassessment of the legislation that binds the hands of the UK government in this fashion is necessary. Most will be confused as to why exactly in 1984 it was possible, given the awful circumstances, to allow people wanted for the cold-blooded murder of a British police officer to leave the country whilst, today, it is impossible for someone wanted for questioning in another country to be allowed to go to a third one to avoid what has already become a diplomatic disaster.

It is, of course, possible that significant diplomatic pressure may be brought to bear on Ecuador to make the Ecuadorian authorities hand Assange over. This was, after all, what happened when, in very different circumstances, Sun Yat-Sen (pictured above, source here), future father of the Chinese revolution, but then just a doctor living in exile, was kidnapped and held at the Chinese embassy in London. Yet, the negative consequences of doing so are suggested by Sun's story. Here's how Marie-Claire Bergere described what happened:

"On 16 October 1896, Sun Yat-sen arose from praying in his guarded room at the Legation. He later wrote that he felt a calmness and hope that made him realise that his prayer was answered. He renewed his attempts to persuade an English porter, Cole, who brought his food, to take a message to his friend Dr Cantlie, and this time the porter agreed to do so. On receiving the news Dr Cantlie informed Scotland Yard and the Foreign Office, which took no relevant action. He then alerted The Times which waited to see what the Foreign Office would do. Aware of this, the Foreign Office began to pressure Macartney, warning that The Times was holding the story. Cantlie finally applied to an Old Bailey judge for a writ of habeas corpus against the Legation. The newspaper The Globe heard of this and broke the news of Sun's kidnapping on 22 October 1896. The next day all the London newspapers published the story. Soon angry Londoners and journalists surrounded the Chinese Legation clamouring for Sun's release. In the afternoon of 23 October Sun was freed. The following day he wrote a letter to The Times thanking its readers for their support, public spiritedness and love of justice. . . Sun's kidnapping made him famous and later facilitated his fund-raising activities around the world..."
Whilst some commentators may be surprised to learn that the "evil foreign media" once intervened to rescue the father of the Chinese revolution, the point to be learned for today's case is that there really doesn't seem to be any 'up' in this for the British government. A diplomatic battle between the UK and Ecuador ending in Assange being lead away in hand cuffs from the Ecuadorian embassy (if this may be acheived), will only result in even greater notoriety for Assange and even more diplomatic back-lash against Britain. 

Monday 13 August 2012

Isn't China a superpower already?

So the London Olympics have finally closed down after 17 days of what I hope you will forgive me for saying, has been a rare, fantastic time to be British. Whilst the closing ceremony was exactly the trashy Eurovision-esque event that Danny Boyle's marvellous opening ceremony so delightfully turned out not to be, this was not even a smudge on the general feel-good of the performance of all the atheletes and volunteers which I enjoyed in the past two weeks, if only at a distance from my couch here in Poland.

It's also worth recognising how different the two positive aspects of these Olympics which depended least on the performance of the athletes would have been had it not been for the ground broken by the 2008 Beijing Olympics.  Volunteers have always been part of the Olympics, and the Olympic games has featured an expansive opening ceremony since the Moscow games in 1980, yet it was Beijing that set the bar to be met in both the enthusiasm and number of the volunteers supporting the games, and in the size and nature of the opening ceremony as a way of attempting to present a certain idea of the culture of the host city and country.

Pace Cohen, China may have problems developing "soft power", and a good part of this may be due to the government, but this does not mean that it does not have any. Sporting power is a form of soft power, and the Chinese athletes have shown in these Olympics, again, and this time without the home advantage, that, despite all the disadvantages facing athletes coming up in a huge and still largely poor country, they can be world-beating.

All of which makes me think that it is time to re-visit the ways in which China is often described: "the future superpower", "the rising superpower". It strikes me that these descriptions may have already had their day. China may still be rising, but it is very easy to argue that superpower status has been acheived.

Comparing the PRC to the US to decide whether it is a superpower is setting the standard too high. Whilst the US has been, or as we probably should start saying, was the sole superpower for quite some time, the USSR was also undoubtedly a superpower, yet the PRC has surpassed it in most metrics of 'power'.

In the field of soft power, government-friendly artists like Zhang Yimou and Lang Lang have a greater appeal world-wide than any Soviet government-sponsored artists that managed to stay in favour (Eisenstein? Shostakovich? Both paid the price for minor works of dissent). We need not compare Chinese films to those produced by Hollywood to see that it has already outstripped a super power in this field.

Economically speaking, the PRC surpassed even the most generous inflation-adjusted estimate for the USSR's final nominal GDP in approximately 2008. The maximum estimate of the USSR's per capita income in the final full year of its existence, roughly 15 thousand US dollars at 2010 prices - an estimate that may well be as much as double the real figure, will, at current growth rates, be exceeded by the PRC within the next 10-15 years. The PRC already has a larger economy than the country which, at least in the past, was often referred to as an economic super-power: Japan.

Militarily, the People's Republic does not yet approach the strength of the Soviet Union, with even its current, rapidly growing military spending still lagging behind the final official military budget of the USSR (222 billion US dollars at 2010 prices). Against this we must also place the fact that the USSR's military strength was paradoxically a weakness in that it was paid for through crippling high levels of spending, and the fact that China could afford these levels of expenditure now if she wanted. Just as importantly, China will almost certainly reach this level of spending within the next five years or so. China can already sustain a super-power military, and possesses nuclear weapons and aircraft carriers only to the extent that they are sources of power and not beyond that.

It is in the field of political power that China lags behind the furthest in the power stakes. Whilst we might expect the PRC's growing military might to attract allies, especially amongst former (present?) co-ideologists in Vietnam, the exact opposite has by-and-large been true. Little has been heard of recently about the formerly much-touted Shanghai Cooperation Organisation grouping of central Asian states of which both China and Russia are members. The history of the region is littered with international bodies which became little more than talking shops (SEATO, ASEAN, etc.) and it is tempting to think that the same has happened to the SCO. None of the myriad insurgencies being fought world-wide right now are trying to re-create the present Chinese system in their own country.

As I wrote a while back, China's socio-political model is not likely to ever be attractive to  people outside of China because it was essentially arrived through a series of disasters which no country would or could replicate. If China does have influence in the outside world it is usually as one of the few powerful countries willing to lend support to certain unpopular states (North Korea, Zimbabwe, Iran etc.) or as a country whose government is willing to exert influence to cancel orders if it is displeased by developments in a certain country. It is therefore in the political field that China is weakest, the only one in which it is still yet to achieve super-power status and, given the limitations of its present government, may never surpass even the USSR (whose system at least some in the outside world took seriously) whilst the CCP remains in power.

But whilst the political model of China does not threaten those of democratic countries, the opposite is not true. Democracy is still very attractive to the average Chinese person, not least for the very clear advantages it gives citizens who want to vote corrupt politicians out of power. It is this that explains the need the authorities to try to inoculate the population against the idea of democratic reform by spreading the twin myths that democracy is somehow un-Chinese or unsuited to China, and that those who do advocate democracy are traitors working against their country's interests.

It was with this dynamic in mind, the dynamic of a reasonably friendly competition between two superpowers, one of which is rather less endowed with confidence than the other, that I've been following the race for the top spot in the medal rankings between the US and China. Whilst the real answer for why the Americans in the end pulled ahead after days of see-sawing between themselves and the Chinese is the relative weakness of the Chinese team in the track-and-field events, the narrative grasped on by commentators in some corners is one of essentially racist bias against China.  In reality, of course, there is no evidence that Chinese athletes were the target of particularly bad decisions - in every incident listed except the gymnastics (where the decision, which appears to have been a bit unfair, meant Brazil receiving one of only three gold medals won during the tournament), other athletes went out in the same competitions for the same infractions. That this kind of complaining is actually likely to be interpreted by neutral observers as betraying a very un-super-power-like lack of confidence does not seem to occur to these commentators.

[Video: The beating of drums heralds the opening of the Beijing Olympic games, 2008]