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 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]

Wednesday 18 June 2014

What remains of China's dissident movement?

This article about the "Nanfang Street Movement", a translated version of an article that originally appeared in Le Monde about a pro-democracy organisation operating in southern China, is worth a reading if only to sample the quixotic, fringe nature of modern-day opposition to the authoritarian Chinese government within mainland China. Indeed, the dissidents quoted in the article sound so idealistic and earnest for a post-Tiananmen, post-Charter 08 China as to be a little hard to credit, which is a pity because what they are saying is exactly the kind of thing that needs to be said in modern-day China, the kind of voice missing at events like today's London love-in :
It was raining the day three militants, accompanied by a fourth there to photograph the scene, unfurled a banner reading, "A party is not the same as a country. The Chinese Communist Party doesn't represent the people." In the center of the photo from that day, 23-year-old Jia Pin is holding up another message that reads, "Democracy, Liberty, Human Rights, Constitutional Government." At his side a follower carries an even more incendiary one that says, "Unelected parties are outlaws."
At least in my experience, these are not unrepresentative of the (unspoken except in safe circumstances) sentiments of a good portion of the Chinese people regarding their government, though it should also be said that a good portion also buys either largely or wholly into the government's message of their rule being solely benevolent. The poignant thing here is just how small the so-called "Nanfang Street Movement" actually is:
"there are only about 10 activists willing to demonstrate publicly," says Wu Kuiming, a lawyer in Guangzhou who defends members of the Nanfang Street Movement when they are arrested. "Quite a few people support the group, but very few are prepared to risk being arrested during a demonstration," says Wu.
The contrast with 25 years ago, when hundreds of thousands of people marched throughout China demanding reform, to today's dissidents, who would struggle to assemble enough people in one place to form a football team, couldn't be more striking.

It is hard not have a feeling of dread when reading this article, knowing that many of the people described in this article will eventually end up either in jail, in exile, or harassed to the point of quitting, because this is what has happened to every other attempt to organise dissident movements in China since 1989. For anyone who has been watching Chinese affairs for more than a few years, there is something nostalgic in reading dissidents putting their faith in the power of the internet, and in government promises of modernisation and reform - since this was exactly how dissidents like Liu Di spoke ten years ago.

Does this then necessarily mean that groups like the "Nanfang Street Movement" are doomed to the same over-all failure that has encompassed organisations like Charter 08? Perhaps not, though nothing short of an economic slow-down that no-one wants to see (but which may be programmed in to China's current development model) could conceivably create the opening for reform that they are looking for.

Thursday 12 June 2014

RIP "One Country, Two Systems"

Reading the PRC governments recently-released white paper, snappily titled "The Practice of the "One Country, Two Systems" Policy in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region", it is hard not to think that the promise by which the PRC achieved assumption of control over Hong Kong in 1997 of ensuring 50 years without change in Hong Kong's essentially liberal politico-economic system, is now something of a dead letter.

Why? Well, amid waffle about the help that the mainland gave Hong Kong during the SARS epidemic (an epidemic that spread to Hong Kong due to the failings of the PRC government), and the benefits that Hong Kong receives from the PRC governments efforts to prevent "foreign forces from interfering in Hong Kong's affairs" (which are?), the white paper dropped this bombshell:
As a unitary state, China's central government has comprehensive jurisdiction over all local administrative regions, including the HKSAR. The high degree of autonomy of HKSAR is not an inherent power, but one that comes solely from the authorization by the central leadership. The high degree of autonomy of the HKSAR is not full autonomy, nor a decentralized power. It is the power to run local affairs as authorized by the central leadership. The high degree of autonomy of HKSAR is subject to the level of the central leadership's authorization.

(my emphasis)
That is, the PRC government wishes to make it known that it does not consider the promise of 50 years without change to be a binding one, but that Hong Kong's autonomy could be removed by the central leadership before that. What could cause them to remove it? Well, the white paper further goes on to state that:

. . . the "two systems" under the "one country" are not on a par with each other. The fact that the mainland, the main body of the country, embraces socialism will not change. With that as the premise, and taking into account the history of Hong Kong and some other regions, capitalism is allowed to stay on a long-term basis. Therefore, a socialist system by the mainland is the prerequisite and guarantee for Hong Kong's practicing capitalism and maintaining its stability and prosperity. For Hong Kong to retain its capitalist system and enjoy a high degree of autonomy with "Hong Kong people governing Hong Kong" according to the Basic Law, it must fully respect the socialist system practiced on the mainland in keeping with the "one country" principle and, in particular, the political system and other systems and principles in practice.

(my emphasis)
This is pretty clearly a threat to the people of Hong Kong from the CCP: don't do anything that might threaten our death-grip on the mainland, otherwise we'll take away whatever freedoms you currently enjoy that are not granted to the rest of China. That this comes at the same time as Occupy Central is preparing demonstrations and unofficial referenda that may be embarrassing to the central government can hardly be a coincidence.

Some critics have attempted to make this out as merely a restatement of long-running government policy. It is nothing of the kind, as even CCP-apologist Lau Nai-keung has to concede, the PRC government has never actually stated anything like this before. Whilst many simply suspected that the PRC government would be willing to abrogate "One Country, Two Systems" if they felt it suited their interests, they have never gone so far as to actually say so.

So where does this leave us? Well, clearly the prospect of Taiwan ever willingly joining mainland China to form a single country under the "One Country, Two Systems" formula is deader than a Dodo for at least as long as the CCP remains in power. Who would ever trust the CCP not to simply withdraw their promise because they felt that people on Taiwan did not "fully respect" the mainland's political system?

"One Country, Two Systems" is an idea that can work, at least in theory, so long as the two systems are on a par with each other. To state openly that they are "not on a par with each other", is to state that one may over-ride the other, which is to state that there is no real guarantee of two systems coexisting.

Tuesday 10 June 2014

Taiwan's advantages are not imaginary.

Via MKL's facebook feed I read this piece on Tsai Yingwen's return to the top of the DPP, a shining example of Want China Times's commitment to talking down Taiwan's achievements over the past two decades:
Tsai doesn't have the firm will, determination and capability to address the sense of "Taiwanese superiority" felt by many in the pro-independence camp — a social psychological barrier that is hindering the DPP's transformation.

The sense of Taiwanese superiority refers to the belief that Taiwan's economic development, democratic politics and way of life are superior to that in mainland China.
 That Taiwan's economic development, way of life, and democratic politics are superior to those of mainland China is not merely a "belief". It is a clear, demonstrable fact, even judging by the most basic metrics.

According to the IMF Taiwan's per-capita income in 2013 was, in nominal terms, more than three times larger than that of mainland China (20,930 USD in Taiwan versus 6,747 USD in China). Clearly, Taiwan's economic development is superior.

According to the WHO in 2013 Taiwanese people had an overall life-expectancy more than six year longer than that of people across the straits in mainland China (80.3 in Taiwan versus 74.2 in China). Again, Taiwanese people appear to live lives that are at the very least much longer than those of mainland Chinese, reflecting a healthier and better-looked-after way of life.

Taiwan has experienced precisely zero deaths due to political disturbances and terrorism in the past year, yet the same can hardly be said of mainland China which has suffered repeated terrorist attacks, and had citizens killed in foreign rioting. In the past six years mainland China has suffered two large-scale uprisings (Tibet in 2008 and Xinjiang in 2009) and has engaged in repeated crackdowns against dissidents, sentencing people like Liu Xiaobo to jail merely for speaking their mind. No amount of bloviating about the occupation of government buildings by students during the Sunflower movement can hide the fact that Taiwan's democratic system is undoubtedly superior to mainland China's authoritarian "Market-Leninist" system.

The piece's main premise - that Taiwan succeeded only because of the US and now needs to "learn from" mainland China - founders on the rock that Taiwan has little to learn from the mainland except "how not to do it". As both Ma Yingjiu's KMT and Tsai Yingwen's DPP have at various time acknowledged, mainland China has much to learn from Taiwan, but the same is not true in the other direction. Indeed, the article does not identify anything concrete that Taiwanese people can learn from the mainland, instead talking only of Taiwan's "failure to see from an international perspective" - a "failure" that has far more to do with China blocking Taiwan's international relations at every turn.

Monday 9 June 2014

Taiwan and the US Department of Defense report

Flicking through the recently-released US Department of Defense's annual report on the Chinese military, there's quite a few things that stand out for those of us with an interest in Taiwanese affairs:
  • Despite various noises that have been made since the election of the Chinese Nationalist KMT government (which this analyst bizarrely describes as "less hardline-nationalist"), Taiwan remains, in the words of the DoD, "the focus and primary driver of China’s military investment". The KMT may have taken the sting out of the war of words, but force has not been taken off the table. As the report points out, Xi Jinping has been quite open in stating that the Taiwan issue "cannot be passed from generation to generation.”

  • The report points out that "China today probably could not enforce a full military blockade. However, its ability to do so will improve significantly over the next five to ten years." This is something that I think people who over-estimate the PRC's ability to use force against Taiwan at the present time (including, e.g., predicting a forced annexation of Taiwan in 2012) need to think about. China at the present moment is not capable of this level of coercion - but the day when it will be powerful enough to use military force to coerce Taiwan is approaching.

  • The above point is further reinforced by the US DoD's assessment that, whilst the PLA could probably carry out small-to-medium scale attacks on outlying islands with a reasonable chance of success, a full-scale invasion of Taiwan "would strain China’s armed forces and invite international intervention [making an invasion] a significant political and military risk". The report goes on to note that "China does not appear to be building the conventional amphibious lift required to support such a campaign" and that "The PLA Navy currently lacks the the amphibious lift capacity that a large-scale invasion of Taiwan would require", meaning that China is likely to remain incapable of launching an invasion of Taiwan with any degree of certainty of success at least in the near-term. However, the exact nature of the aircraft carriers now being built in China is not known.
Far from the panicked picture drawn elsewhere, it appears that, at least according to the US DoD, Taiwan is not under a significantly greater threat now than it has been over the past decade, though it may be within the next 5-10 years. Narratives that basically require support for one or the other political parties in Taiwan in order to rescue Taiwan from an immediate threat to Taiwanese democracy coming from its own elected government, with no supporting evidence of anything new, should be treated with suspicion.

Thursday 5 June 2014

"The War of The Running Dogs", and China's role in it.

Lately I've been reading Noel Barber's excellent (if definitely of its time) The War of The Running Dogs*, a book which tells the story of the Malayan Emergency in an engagingly Boys-own-like style. The book's succeeds by largely eschewing the dust-dry blow-by-blow account of technical and political happenings that so many histories of other counter-insurgency conflicts engage in, and instead dishes up gripping accounts of events demonstrative of the situation as a whole.

The conflict, which began 66 years ago next week, following the murder of three planters by communists in attacks marking the beginning of a wave of terrorist attacks aimed at destablising Malaya (as it was then known) in the run-up to its independence, and creating 'liberated zones' into which the British would not dare to go, was marked by many contradictions. The communist rebels were nominally fighting for an independence which was already promised, albeit without a fixed date, and had learned their jungle-warfare skills whilst fighting alongside the British against the Japanese during the Second World War. The British were fighting to keep control of a country which they were going to lose control of anyway, against rebels using British weapons which had mostly been air-dropped into Malaya during WW2. The communist leader, Chin Peng (陈平), who died only last year, had even been awarded the OBE for his role in fighting the Japanese.

For anyone interested in China, it is interesting to look at the ways in which the influence of China was felt throughout the conflict. In a war in which one side was largely ethnic-Chinese, and in many cases combatants on both sides were first-generation immigrants from mainland China, China was always likely to be a significant impact, but the coincidence of the struggle in Malaya with the titanic conflict inside China and along its borders between communists and non-communists during this time made China a major factor.

Whilst the idea (which Barber briefly examines) that the start of the conflict in Malaya was part of a co-ordinated effort by communists across Asia, is something we can safely set to one side as having no basis in fact, the conflict was definitely modeled on Mao's insurgency in China, with its emphasis on dominating the countryside and encircling the cities. Chin Peng certainly seems to have seen himself as a Mao-like figure, although he deviated from Mao's doctrine by not making political warfare at the same time and with the same intensity as he made guerrilla warfare, although this is largely the result of him having already tried the political route to power in the years between the war and the start of the guerrilla campaign with indifferent results.

With the end of the civil war in China in late 1949, officers from China's People's Liberation Army arrived at Chin Peng's headquarters. Barber points out that it was likely their influence that led Chin Peng to back off from his attacks on civilian targets that had served to antagonise the Malayan population in a change of policy that was announced in October 1951. This seems likely given the way it meshes with Mao's philosophy of trying to get ordinary people in the countryside onto the side of communists.

Another change prompted by the end of the Chinese civil war was the extension of British diplomatic recognition to the People's Republic of China in 1950 - a move that was seen in Malaya as a total betrayal at a time when the colonial administration there was fighting PRC-backed communists. We may reflect that, whilst the recognition was only a common-sense move given the communist victory, Britain does not seem to have derived any noticeable advantages from recognising the PRC decades before any other Western European state beyond better facilitating the administration of Hong Kong, least of all in Malaya. Perhaps this should be remembered the next time the advantages of "opening up" relations with an oppressive state are touted.

Finally, China was the last refuge for Chin Peng following his defeat in Malaya and the retreat of the Malayan communists across the border into Thailand, where they kept alive a vicious totalitarian-state-in-miniature which Chin controlled from Beijing. Chin Peng launched his second, much less successful campaign (not covered in Barber's book) from Thailand with a promise of financial support from the PRC personally delivered by Deng Xiaoping. Chin Peng's communists were riven by the Cultural Revolution in a fashion from which they never fully recovered, and eventually surrendered amid the global retreat of communism in 1989.

The net result of Chin's war against the British and their "running dogs" was an independent Malaysia that enjoyed a limited form of democracy hampered and defended by equal part by a security apparatus, that, as I found out when I visited there in 2009, remains in place despite its raison d'etre having largely disappeared.

*Barber claims that this was how Malayan communists themselves unofficially referred to the conflict (officially they called it "反英民族解放战争" - the Anti-British War of National Liberation), however searching around for various combinations of the terms "走狗" and "战争" I haven't found any Chinese language sources using this name. 

[Picture: A leaflet promising Malayan communists who surrender with a machine gun "a new life", and 1000 dollars. Via Wiki]

Wednesday 4 June 2014

Relevant meme

The day I forgot about Tiananmen.

Ten years ago today I sat in Bella Napoli near Xinjiekou in Nanjing chatting with a good friend of mine about something I'd seen that day. Between mouthfuls of the excellent seafood salad they serve there, I described how suddenly, for reasons not immediately apparent to anyone, police vans had showed up outside each of the gates of South East University, where I was studying Chinese, and the same appeared to be happening at other universities in the city.

He just leaned across the table and said "Guess what happened 15 years ago today?". Even then it took a little while to click - you see, whilst the 1989 massacre in and around Tiananmen Square in Beijing is commonly mentioned in histories of the country, it is hardly kept present in the minds of people living in the People's Republic of China, even those who normally try to keep on top of events.

The defensive posture of the government is therefore a bit contradictory given their largely-successful efforts to keep the people of the country from even thinking about the massacre, in which perhaps as many as 3,000 people were killed. Probably very few of the Chinese-born students at South East University had even thought about the massacre that day in 2004, so to prepare for potential trouble in the fashion they did was to risk reminding them.

The response then, and perhaps more so now, speaks a of deep-seated fear amongst China's rulers that people will remember what happened, and call the communist party to account for it. If China really was as politically stable as it's leaders try to present it as being, if young people really were as forgetful as this preposterous article in Global Times presents them as being, they would not be busy trying to censor even oblique references to an event that happened 25 years previously, nor arresting foreign journalists for showing photographs of it, nor would they be "inviting" foreign students on compulsory trips announced on short notice to take them out of the capital on that day.

Instead, China continues to be a country in which the government at least behaves like its rule is insecure. Perhaps they're right about that.

Tuesday 3 June 2014

The UKIP opportunity.

The results of last month's European elections have caused quite a stir in the UK, since they are the first elections in more than 100 years in which neither the Conservatives nor the Labour party have won the greatest number of votes. As UKIP rose, it was generally believed that the Conservatives were the ones who would suffer most as UKIP's anti-EU, anti-immigration message would appeal most to their supporters, but then UKIP started to siphon off votes from the equally xenophobic base of the Labour party. As Steve Fisher, Associate Professor in Political Sociology and the Fellow and Tutor in Politics at Trinity College, University of Oxford, pointed out:
What seems to have happened is that between 2010 and 2012 UKIP took votes mainly from the Conservatives, but between 2012 and 2014 they have had more success in attracting Labour voters. The net effect is that the UKIP rise from 2010 to 2014 has been at similar expense to Labour and the Conservatives.

This is certainly a story that fits the main pattern of change in the general election vote intention opinion polls. The narrowing of the Labour lead over the past two years has been mainly due to a Labour fall and UKIP rise.
This of course isn't the whole story - it should be pointed out that one party's collapse in the
voting share at the EU elections seemed almost total, and seems very likely to be due to UKIP. It is that of the far-right extremist British National Party, which received 943,598 votes in 2009 but only 179,694 in 2014.

My personal take on this is, if the anti-EU, anti-immigrant section of each of the main parties, as well as the support base of the far-right BNP, choose to assemble themselves under one flag, then finally the main parties will be able to run against them without having to upset their own base. Moreoever, at the same time as UKIP has assembled an electoral machine that allows them to capitalise on anti-immigration and anti-EU sentiment in the UK, they have been losing the argument amongst the British people, who are steadily becoming more pro-EU and pro-immigration.

Monday 2 June 2014

Juan Carlos, the case for constitutional monarchy, and defending the indefensible.

At one of the banquets I attended whilst teaching at Nanjing University of Finance and Economics, one particularly boozy cadre asked me "why does Britain still have a queen?". Having been asked this question a few times, I shot back with the question "why doesn't China have a monarch, and wouldn't it be better off if it did?". His reaction was amazement that anyone would want to argue in favour of a monarchy, and much discussion of the Xinhai rebellion then ensued.

I was reminded of this discussion when I saw the news of King Juan Carlos's of Spain's abdication today. There's few arguments that can be made in favour of a monarchy, and no-one can really say that, beginning from a tabula rasa, you would rationally chose to have a country ruled by a head of state chosen by accident of birth. All the same, Juan Carlos's actions in the attempted 1981 coup make the best possible case that can possibly be made for this basically irrational way of running a country - he represented a non-political reservoir of power that could take action where no-one else could, and he acted decisively.

Personally, however, I have to admit that my own support for the monarchy in the UK comes mostly from the gut. I certainly believe that, given that we are where we are there is no point in changing now, and that there are economic and constitutional advantages to having a monarchy, but in the end my support comes from history and tradition.

Occasionally I get accused of not understanding the emotional commitment that some Chinese people have to the Communist Party. Believe me, I get it - but "getting it" and being able to excuse it are two different things.

Sunday 1 June 2014

"better than 40% of KMT supporters don't support the Party's core mission"

Whilst I think he highlights an important data-point, I don't entirely agree with Michael Turton's analysis of the out-come of a recent poll showing that only 52.3% of KMT supporters believe that both Taiwan and the Chinese mainland belong to "One China" here. Unifying Taiwan with the Chinese mainland is not really the KMT's "core mission". It has always been more of a unifying credo, an identity similar to the UK Labour Party's Clause 4, something which a core can rally around without necessarily believing it will be implemented any time soon or even ever.

Why do I think this? Well, asides from all the other reasons (like, for example, the fact it hasn't happened yet), if it was the "core mission", then it would be pretty strange for so many KMT supporters not to actually support it. The KMT vote is more the product of ancestry, belief in certain (fairly statist in places) economic policies, and networks of patronage that may stretch into some dark corners, than wholesale commitment to Chinese nationalist (small 'n') ideology and goals.

Saturday 31 May 2014

Bread and Circuses: why the World Cup and the Winter Olympics are coming to China.

Back in my days as a university English teacher in Nanjing (of course, I didn't describe myself as such) one of the role-play assignments I gave my students was to come up with a pitch for Nanjing to host the "2014 Olympics". Most classes found this fairly fun as everyone was, in those days, still excited about the 2008 Beijing games that were still a few years away, however in one class a student objected simply "but, there won't be any Olympics in 2014!", a failure of suspension-of-disbelief that I found a bit perplexing.

Well, now disbelief need no longer be suspended, since Nanjing IS scheduled to hold the Olympics this year, albeit their poorer cousin, the Summer Youth Olympic Games. Happily the cost of the games will hopefully be no more than the US$315 million budget reportedly allocated to it,less than 1% of the 2008 game's estimated cost.

The news that Krakow has pulled out of hosting the 2022 Winter Olympics was no surprise to anyone who knows much about that city. The fact that the snow-capped mountains clearly visible in some of the promotional material looming over the city . . . erm . . . aren't there but are much further away, was a fairly obvious point. The potential lack of snow was also an issue, as in February, whilst the games in Sochi were going on, pretty much everyone in Poland was crossing the border into the Czech Republic to find decent snow-coverage. Just as relevant, Cracovians were clever enough to spot that they could have the investment in infrastructure hosting the games normally brings, without having to have the games, and in the same referendum that ended the bid, approved a program for building a metro system and cycle-paths.

As has been widely covered elsewhere, Krakow is not the only city to pull out of hosting the 2022 Winter Olympics, leaving Beijing and Almaty as the only cities still in real contention, and as Antony Tao over at Beijing Cream points out, Beijing is by far the most likely of these two to win because of the spending power that will be put behind their bid. The fact that these are also the only places where local residents have no say about what their money is spent on has also not be lost on many observers.

What you are left with is the impression that, in pursuing ever-grander plans for world sporting events, the various bodies that control world sports have painted themselves into a corner where no country not in need of bread-and-circuses distractions to divert their population from the oppressive nature of the state they live under is willing to pay the massive cost of hosting an event like the Olympics. Since the ludicrous decision to award the World Cup, a multi-city, multi-stadium summer event, to Qatar, a country with only one real city and, at the present time, one stadium with a capacity above 40,000, on the basis of a plan that will require the spending of a year's annual GDP for Qatar, this can be said to include FIFA as well.

If this is the trend, then the one country that will end up costing the lion's-share of event will be China. Indeed, if China manages to get the 2026 World Cup and the 2022 Winter games, that country will have hosted the World Cup, The Winter Olympics, and the Summer Olympics within a 20-year time-span. Even if FIFA's continental cycle upsets this (though the Qatar decision shows that they'll do anything for a high-bidder, even moving the tournament to winter), they will have happened within 22 years of each other. Indeed, with suggestions that Guangzhou should make a bid for the 2024 games, China might have held the Summer Olympics again before 2030.

[Picture: A gate-house not far from Nanjing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics, where I taught back in 2003]

Friday 30 May 2014

The People's Republic of China is not a meritocracy.

Ben Ross (he of the Ben Ross blog) shared the above video, which has been described as "brilliant". I have to agree - as propaganda glossing over a whole slew of issues with China's political system whilst breezily putting down the democratic systems of other countries, it is quite an achievement.

Yesterday I talked about how the Chinese government's various attempts in the past at connecting with the outside world had failed because they too often seemed to be talking to themselves rather than targeting a specific audience which they believed they could convince. The above video, is an example of something that might actually work - targeting those in the west for whom democracy has always seemed a bit "messy" and not sufficiently technocratic, and doing so in a fashion reminiscent of Next Media's popular videos.

At any rate, it should be pointed out that the description of China as a meritocracy in the video is bunk. Here's why:

  • The tests that people have to pass to gain CCP membership are universally treated as a joke - they are merely an exercise in memorising obscure communist and Marxist theory that both the examiners and the examinees are well aware are of zero use. Rather than meritocratic exams, they are more of an exercise in hazing, testing the subjects ability to ingest and repeat meaningless verbiage verbatim.
  • Passing the exams is not the only criteria for membership. Those known to have religious beliefs of any kind are barred from membership, are may be those who are known to come from "unsound" backgrounds. 
  • No-one actually knows what the criteria for selection for promotion actually are. We have at various times been told that they have been expanded to include this-or-that, but there is no openness about who they are applied, the entirely reasonable suspicion is therefore that they are rigged, or at least riggable to select favourites.
  • If China's government was a meritocracy, then it is curious that the current generation features so many members of the so-called "Crown Prince Party" - which is to say the relatives of former high-level officials. Xi Jinping is the son of Xi Zhongcun, Yu Zhengsheng is the son of Yu Qiwei, Wang Qishan is the son-in-law of Yao Yilin. The US equivalent would be a US government where three of the top eight spots were held by a Bush, a Clinton, and a Kennedy.
  • The performance, and level of corruption, of people like Bo Xilai and Zhou Yongkang in all likelihood differs little from other members of the politburo, at least judging by the reported wealth of (former premier) Wen Jiabao. However, Bo Xilai and Zhou Yongkang are receiving the show-trial treatment for their crimes. The conclusion has to be that factional politics are the real decider here, not performance.
  • As usual with these things, there's a fair amount of re-writing of history going on here. Hua Guofeng is totally missing. 1989 is missing. 1966-76 is missing. Mao Zedong's entirely unmeritocratic rise to power is missing. 
In reality, far from being a meritocracy, China's political system is exactly the corrupt Game of Thrones that a casual analysis of the day-in day-out news emerging from China's political scene shows it to be.

[Video: "How to become a president". It is unclear whether the outfit that created the video is a government one or a private one]

Thursday 29 May 2014

Why RT succeeds where CCTV 9 fails.

A little while back The Guardian ran a story by the reader's editor reporting the suspicions of the Guardian website team that stories on The Guardian website about the Ukrainian crisis were being "astroturfed" by Kremlin-supporters.  These allegations were no surprise to anyone familiar with the Chinese internet scene as the pattern of behaviour was very familiar - a story would be posted, remain relatively uncommented on for around 15-20 minutes, and would then be flooded by recently-joined commenters repeatedly posting the same, near-identical talking-points in support of Vladimir Putin's aggression in the Ukraine. You didn't have to be a raging paranoid to think that you were seeing the Russian equivalent of China's "Wu Mao Dang" (loosely translated as "50 Cent Party") in action - a "50 Kopeck Crew" if you will.

However, this is not the whole story. There were also many who were undeniably unrelated to the Kremlin, but also undeniably convinced of the correctness of Vladimir Putin's actions against the Ukraine, and who obviously based their opinions on content emanating from a single source - RT, formerly Russia Today.

For anyone who has watched the P.R.C. government's various failed attempts at making itself heard outside the areas under its direct control over the years, this was something of a surprise. Whilst there will always be a strand of opinion willing to seize on any reason to believe that the ills of the world can be laid entirely at the door of the US government, the credibility the RT had gained amongst these people was surprising.

What then is it that RT does that Chinese state-controlled outlets directed to the outside world have failed to do? At a guess, I would put it down to the following factors:

  • Understand your target audience and tell them what they want to hear - In as much as any target-audience can be identified, CCTV 9 and outlets like Xinhua's CNC world seem directed to foreign businessmen visiting the country. This is regardless of the very obvious fact that these people have better sources of information when it comes to China, even when it comes to business news.

    By contrast RT concentrates on the audience that they know will be most receptive to their messaging. Rather than try to fool all of the people all of the time, they instead go after political extremists and conspiracy theorists who are willing to believe the worst about the countries they live in and the governments that govern them. It is for this reason that, for example, their instruction to a reporter heading to Germany were to make the place look like a "failed state".

  • Use familiar faces - From early on CCTV 9 made use of foreign-born presenters like (recently deceased) Chris Gelken in a strategy that was described as "putting Chinese wine in a foreign bottle". This use of white-faces merely to present pretty much the same content put out on other outlets by Chinese presenters reflects mistaken (not to say racist) thinking about why exactly it is that foreigners find Chinese state propaganda somewhat less convincing than news from credible sources.

    RT, though, takes a different tack - it uses interviews with reliable, and fairly well known (even popular within certain circles) subjects like John Pilger and George Galloway to spread its message. The identification of these individuals with RT, their willingness to be used by Putin's oligarch-dominated nationalistic state whilst they use RT in return as an outlet for their own ultra-left ideology, is an asset enjoyed by RT that CCTV can only dream of. The fact that most people familiar with these men know them for the propagandists they are is immaterial, because the target audience is not "most people".

  • What's important is the effect of the message, not its wording - Reading descriptions of what it is like to work at a Chinese state-controlled English-language media outlet, there seems to be a general agreement that much of the focus was on political correctness and avoidance of things like, for example, describing the president of Taiwan as exactly what he is. The result is often something that almost appears as if it were written in code

    RT instead pursues a tabloid-style format, it isn't afraid to carry stories condemning, for example, gay-rights abuses in other countries despite Russia being far worse in that regard because its aim is to piggy-back pro-Russia messaging that its target audience is fairly neutral on on the back of anti-US/EU sentiment that they can't get enough of. Whilst there is occasional blow-back, RT can afford this because its core message is getting across to the people who it knows will listen to it.

  • Integration with the intelligence services - By carrying taped, intercepted phone-calls between European and US diplomats that RT had 'discovered' on Youtube within a remarkably short time of their having been uploaded, RT was able to pose as a news channel breaking stories before anyone else, and, just as importantly, spin them in a way that served their interests. It did not matter that the intercepts simply featured diplomats exchanging gossip - once spun as overwhelming evidence of a conspiracy it was impossible to counter this line. Similarly RT's target audience did not care that this clearly pointed to RT merely being a cog in the Russian propaganda machine since they were far more interested in anything that they believed would validate their own paranoid world-view.  
This at least is my view on it, and of all the above factors the first is the most important. No-one believes, or even likes CCTV 9's Yang Rui, especially not after his various diatribes against China's foreign population, other than relatively few people among the Chinese diaspora no-one sees China's English-language news outlets as being credible or even worth checking regularly - but at the heart of all of this is the fact that CCTV 9 seems to be engaged in a conversation with itself rather than targeting a specific audience.

UPDATE: Another heavy-handed propaganda channel that probably needs to think a bit more about who its target audience is.

[Video: RT get pwned on their own channel]

Wednesday 28 May 2014

Putin on the ropes, and what this means for China.

Loath as I am to agree with Tom Friedman, but I have to say that he is correct in this piece to say that it appears that in the Ukraine Putin finally appears to be backing off, and that if the Ukranian government's offensive in eastern Ukraine succeeds (and it appears to be succeeding) this will make the outcome of the Ukrainian crisis an overall setback for Putin and his political model.

Whilst there are no doubt still those deluded enough to deny that Putin was behind the take-over of Luhansk and Donetsk Oblasts by militias comprising a mix of local ethnic Russians, Russian Cossacks, and Chechens claiming to be acting on the orders of (Putin ally and ruler of the Chechen region) Ramzan Kadyrov, no-one in their right mind can really believe now that it was not Putin who was calling the shots. This was especially the case after Putin firstly admitted that Russian soldiers had been involved in his earlier invasion and annexation of the Crimea - a territory on which Russia had basing rights that obviously did not stretch to occupying all government buildings and airports, overthrowing the local government and annexing the territory - and then his spokesman claimed that he had "lost influence" over the militias, implying obviously that they had been under Russia's influence.

The link between Putin and this takeover being obvious, the defeat of the pro-Russian militias in eastern Ukraine, and Putin's apparent abandonment of his proxies there, therefore becomes a defeat for Putin. This is quite a revolution given that a couple of weeks ago many (including myself) were afraid that Putin's strategy of first infiltrating a region with "self-defence" militia, then holding a referendum of highly dubious validity, and then annexing that territory would be applied to all Russian-speaking parts of the Ukraine just as it had been applied to the Crimea.

There was, in reality, no difference at all between the situation in Crimea and that in the eastern part of the Ukraine. Putin's claim to have merely been intervening in the Crimea to defend ethnic Russians against "fascists" makes no sense  if it does not also apply to eastern Ukraine, since they were both subject to the same supposed risk. The votes "inviting" Russian troops into Luhansk and Donetsk were of the same dubious validity as that in the Crimea, the same is true of the referenda held in each territory.

Why, then, haven't Donetsk and Luhansk - industrial, resource-rich areas with a combined population of 6.5 million - been occupied and annexed? My guess is that Friedman is right when he points to the response of the markets in this crisis, and the economic sanctions imposed by the EU, the US, Canada, Australia, and other countries. The Russian economy, after a decade of relatively high growth, is predicted not to grow at all this year. For a country which, like China, is ruled by an autocratic government whose main pillar of support is the promise of delivering economic growth in exchange for curbed democratic freedoms, this is a definite cause for concern.

Observers in China may well reflect that it exactly the depth of Russia's engagement with the global economy that makes them so vulnerable to economic sanctions and a negative response from the markets. Unlike the China Yuan, the Russian Ruble is a currency traded on the world markets, an arrangement that ensured its rapid decline in value at the outbreak of Russia's involvement in the Ukrainian crisis. Russia has spent more than 40 billion USD defending the Ruble so far this year.

Similarly, Russia lacks the kind of controls on capital flow that China has. As a result of the risky atmosphere brought about both by Russia's involvement in the conflict and the risk of sanctions, it is predicted that roughly 85-90 billion USD will flow out of the Russian economy this year - the equivalent of the entire Russian defence budget.

It seems unlikely that the P.R.C government would wish to leave themselves open to such a backlash in the form of economic sanctions and market response by further opening their economy to the extent that Russia has any time This is especially so in the light of the "bad" crises that have arisen around China's regional and internal conflicts this year.

As long as the P.R.C. remains a power that wishes to keep the use of force against neighbours like Taiwan on the table,  further opening up to global markets therefore seems unlikely. Indeed, this would suit the faux-leftist ideology of some in the Chinese leadership for whom "neoliberalism" (a nebulous and vague term whose meaning rarely seems to vary from "capitalism") is considered a "threat".

[Picture: Spent shell-casings litter the road in Karlovka in eastern Ukraine after fighting between government troops and pro-Russian militia. Via Wiki]

Monday 26 May 2014

"Things were better in Chiang Kai-shek's day"

From the annals of "WTF" comes this bizarre Op-Ed piece in the Want China Times claiming, amongst other things, that the Sunflower Movement "[placed] Taiwan's system of law and order in jeopardy", "usurped executive power", "hurt the . . . separation of powers", "divided Taiwan's society", "[destroyed] the values of hardworking people", subjected the national identity of the Republic of China to "unprecedented devastation", and would "eventually make Taiwan a rigid and isolated society". Whilst the title may have been the addition of one of the editors, it is not totally unrepresentative of the content of the article, where it is claimed that Chiang Kai-Shek and his son, Chiang Ching-Guo, the martial-law era dictators of Taiwan upheld the principle of executive power over legislative power - something of a under-statement given the extra-legal brutality handed out on the direct orders of the Chiangs, and who enforced an essentially single-party system under their personal control.

The author, Bert Lim, is president and founding member of the World Economics Society, a Taiwan-based think-tank whose existence stretches back to the martial-law era (1974), and has written rather more sane articles for publications including the broadly pro-independence Taipei Times, however this piece reflects simply a deluded and hyperbolic mind-set. The Sunflower Movement, at most, was a student demo that managed to temporarily occupy a few government buildings in Taipei through what appears to have been the typically bad policing of the R.O.C. police force, and which was then rightly removed, albeit in a heavy-handed fashion that is also typical of the police in Taiwan.

A simple student demonstration cannot jeopardise the system of law and order in a democratic country, and there is no sign that Taiwan is an more or less of a country under the rule of law this year than it was last year. Students occupying the legislature cannot be said to have strengthened that legislature. There is no sign that the separation of powers, a separation that simply did not exist under the Chiangs who controlled all arms of the state, is under significant threat. Taiwanese society is, depressingly, neither more or less divided than it was at the start of this year though the response to the occupation obviously exposed that division. The R.O.C. exists as a state only at this point, and has lacked any real national identity now, at least one distinct to Taiwan, for more than a decade now. The Taiwanese economy is not really threatened by this occupation, though the services treaty it protested against might bring some minor benefits to the economy.

Meeting this kind of extreme rhetoric point-by-point almost seems pointless given the way it seems to spring up all the time in political discussion in Taiwanese discussion. The best response to this kind of hyperbole is simply to ask the question that Ma Yingjiu posed in response to a question from the Taipei Times back in 2009:

Taipei Times: Do you think Taiwan is a normal country?

President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九): The Taiwanese people elect their own president and legislature and govern themselves. Do you think that is normal or not normal?
Whatever you may think of Taiwan's democratically-elected president now, he was undoubtedly right then. Taiwan  remains an essentially stable, law-abiding, and above all, normal country, albeit one living under the threat of invasion.

[Picture: Former Taiwanese dictator Chiang Kai-Shek takes the salute at the Double-Ten parade in Taipei in 1966. Via Wiki]