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]

Four countries, four elections.

The papers are already heralding UK Independence Party receiving the most votes in the UK elections for the European Parliament as a "political earthquake". Personally I'm inclined to yawn this one off as the result of the European Parliament being essentially a powerless talking-shop, this is particularly the case given that in the local elections held simultaneously the UKIP "surge" was much less apparent - it seems that people are voting UKIP (and remember, we're talking about only 28% of those who bothered to vote) as a protest vote against the EU, rather than an indication that people actually want to be ruled over by a party like UKIP.

In the run-up to the European elections here in Wroclaw it was obvious that a real push was being made by (ruling party) Civic Platform (Platforma Obywatelska) to get Stanislaw Huskowski elected as an MEP for the area, with posters like the above appearing all over town. Despite this Huskowski failed to get elected - as one twitterer said: "even the photo with [popular Wroclaw mayor] Dutkiewicz didn't work miracles".

There is something fitting, I guess, in the fact that Poland's last communist dictator, Wojciech Jaruzelski, died on the same day that Polish people voted in a free election as a confirmed, ordinary, and stable part of Europe. The hundreds of killings that resulted from the military crackdown that he ordered, on the other hand, will now never be properly punished for the criminal acts that they were.

I was on a day-trip to Dresden yesterday, and political advertising seemed to be everywhere in the city, which is now finally getting back to the splendor it had before Allied bombing and decades of neglect during the communist era left so much of the city in ruins. Whilst the Germany people seem to have quite sensibly given the largest number of votes to Angela Merkel's CDU, advertising like the above indicates that Germany too has its shrill and over-blown voices.

The fact that 54% of Ukrainian voters have voted to elect Petro Poroshenko (pictured above) should mean the end to the claims that the Ukraine's present government is "illegitimate" and "fascist" from those whose loyalty is, either openly or covertly, to the Kremlin and Vladimir Putin's revanchist and nationalistic regime. Unfortunately it seems unlikely to do so - instead we're faced with the prospect of Putin's cronies condemning the vote as not representing the opinions of those in Donetsk and Luhansk at the same time as the militias they support there prevent large numbers of people in those areas voting.

[Pictures from top: 1. A UKIP poster from 2009 - whether (immigrant's son) Winston Churchill really would have support UKIP's positions is arguable (Lewis Clarke via Wiki). 2. "Rafal Dutkiewicz: I'm choosing Huskowski" - a  poster from Wroclaw. 3. NPD and BueSo posters seen in Dresden - the NPD one says "No West German conditions (?) in our city", the BueSo one reads "Us Germans can stop the world war", if JR or TaiDe would like to explain what the hell these are going on about I'd be grateful. 4. Petro Poroshenko, via wiki.] 

Sunday 25 May 2014

Thought For The Day.

"People who want to blame poorer people from other countries for what they dislike about modern life are prey to cruel and erroneous thinking and we should not "focus" on their "concerns". We should tell them that this is how racism starts."
- Matthew Parris, on how the main parties should respond to the rise of populist anti-immigration parties like UKIP.

Saturday 24 May 2014

Taiwan Hyperbole, Again.

Taiwan observer J. Michael Cole has a new post over at The Diplomat that plumbs a new low in the annals of the willingness of some in the Taiwan expat commentariat to talk up the state of crisis in Taiwan, and accuse the democratically-elected Kuomintang government of essentially being a illegitimate dictatorship. This part is representative of the whole: 

". . . soon after Ma began his second (and last) term in 2012 and Chinese President Xi Jinping stepped into Zhongnanhai, the domestic pressures in Taiwan and growing apprehensions regarding the impact of China on the lives of the nation’s 23 million people became more apparent. Protests — against pro-China media, land expropriation, revisionism in school material, layoffs, and a services trade agreement with China, among others — became standard fare. In many cases, the negative influence of China on the quality of Taiwan’s democracy, which was quickly losing its abstract quality, was among the factors behind the demonstrations (the first major one occurred in November 2008 during the visit by Chinese negotiator Chen Yunlin).But despite the daily protests (sometimes several ones in a single day), the signs of emerging “soft authoritarianism” in the government’s reaction to civil society, or a not-unrelated desperate act of anger in which a man crashed a 35-tonne truck into the Presidential Office, the world didn’t pay attention."

 Let's gloss over the fact that Xi Jinping has been at Zhongnanhai since 2008 at least, and just look at Cole's claim that protests have become "standard fare" - perhaps, but is this really anything unusual in Taiwanese politics?

It seems that Cole has forgotten Chen Shui-bian's last term and the various mass protests that occurred in that time, including a march by a claimed 300,000 people (or 90,000, but there's a nasty habit of people taking which ever estimate best fits their argument in Taiwanese politics). It seems J. Michael Cole has forgotten the massive demonstrations of the first Ma term, especially the Economic Common Framework Agreement. In fact, the only thing that is really new in all this was the invasion of the Legislative Yuan by students, to which the KMT government responded much as you would expect - with heavy-handed riot police. Even the crash does not seem so unusual (or so excusable as a "desperate act of anger") when you consider things like the attempted assassination of Chen Shui-bian and Annette Lu by an equally-crazed man in 2004.

Let's also look at Cole's claim that there have been "emerging signs of "soft authoritarianism"" in Taiwan. Trying to pin down what exactly this means seems to uncover little more than claims that the students who occupied the Legislative Yuan had to put up with the air-conditioning being turned off on them and were evicted from the government buildings and public spaces they had occupied. The KMT's main crime seems to be that in implementing the services agreement with mainland China they did exactly what the constitution and their democratically-conferred majority allows them to do, but broke a non-binding agreement by doing so. Everything else seems to fall into the normal bag of ridiculous hype, gossip, rumour, and conspiracy theories that has swirled around in Taiwan since at least the advent of the democratic era, and probably before then too.

Even the "big news" from Taiwan, the emergence of the Sunflower Movement, is reminiscent of nothing so much as the various Occupy movements around the world over the past 3-4 years or so. This is particularly reflected in the disparate nature of what their banners proclaim them as being in favour of, and in their essential lack of any specific goal.  Demanding that a law not be passed, that the president resign, accusing the ruling party of being corrupt - this has been the common fare of Taiwanese politics going back ten years at least.

And let's not forget the various hyperbole-laden warnings that have come forth from Taiwan over the years. Back in 2002 "Father of the Nation" and ex-President Lee Teng-Hui warned of a likely Chinese invasion happening in 2008. Indeed, Cole, who in his latest article warns that Taiwan is "at the eleventh hour" and that "the day of reckoning in the Taiwan Strait is fast approaching", has himself been guilty of making warnings that, especially in retrospect, appear more than a little bit misguided - particularly his warning before the 2012 election that there would be a forced annexation of Taiwan by China facilitated by the KMT that year. 

Looked at this way, simply regarding affairs in Taiwan as business as usual, and ignoring the never-ending flow of hype coming from the various side of the Taiwan debate in the abscence of real indications of change, is nothing but good common sense.

Friday 23 May 2014

The China I Knew.

I guess all of us ex-expats eventually get to the point where they've been long enough out of the country that it no longer quite resembles the country they lived in. Having been out of China for a few years since my last visit there, I visited Chengdu and Beijing on a whistle-stop tour whilst on business, here's my Tom Friedman-level analysis of what seemed to have changed:
  • Pollution. The distance from my hotel in Chengdu to the largest mall in the world was roughly half a mile (i.e., about a kilometre), yet for large parts of my stay it was completely obscured by dust and smog. Despite my three years in Nanjing and two years in Shenzhen, I have never seen pollution as bad as the pollution I saw in Chengdu during the four days I was there. I used to be one of those assholes who would inwardly smirk when someone complained to me of getting a sore throat and sore eyes because of the pollution in China, but this time round it was me on the receiving end. Not nice.
  • "Pollution Control". My visit to Beijing coincided with that of a prominent international figure, and surprisingly enough the skies were very clear indeed. Cynical minds try to draw a connection between these two facts. Whilst obviously there was no evidence of any connection, the idea that the government is basically ordering pollution-producing enterprises to do a stock-take during VIP visits to the capital is now widely-believed. Back in my Nanjing days, when Fidel Castro or Lian Zhan came to town, such thoughts wouldn't have entered our minds.
  • Inequality. It used to be, at least in Nanjing, that you'd be able to identify the well-connected and corrupt by their driving of black Audis with military plates. Nowadays you're more likely to see them drive past your 8 kuai taxi in a Maybach, a Ferrari, or a Rolls Royce. You'll see fancier cars being driven through central Chengdu than you will even in central London. In Beijing, however, this trend was far less apparent.
  • Prices. Many things, mostly those that rely on low-level labour, haven't changed much - the 8 kuai minimum taxi ride in Chengdu was about the same as it had been in Nanjing ten years previously, the rou bao I bought outside the hotel were about the same price I used to pay on my way to classes in 2005. What you do see some crazy increases of price in are the things that fall into the "conspicuous consumption" bracket - the price of a bottle of super-average Qingdao at one bar I visited was more than 70 RMB, up even from the ridiculous 40 RMB it had last been when I had been to the same bar three years previously. 
  • The Defensive Posture. There were police on every street corner of central Chengdu, with People's Armed Police brandishing automatic weapons in the area around the main square. Almost certainly this is a result of the recent Xinjiang-related terrorist attacks in China. All the same, it is likely to become a permanent fixture as these attacks don't seem likely to stop any time soon. Beijing was, surprisingly, far more relaxed and basically China as I remembered it in this regard.
  • Street Food. For many China expats this is one of the great joys of living in China, however Street food seemed to have been banished from the centre of Chengdu and scarcely available elsewhere. Beijing, again, hadn't changed nearly so much in this regards, and you can still buy jian bing outside the Worker's Stadium.
  • Low-Level Crime. The pirate DVD stores and "Barbershops" that you used to see on every street in the entire country seemed to have almost totally disappeared. I saw not a single one in Chengdu, and only a few DVD shops that may even have been selling genuine DVDs in Beijing. I'm told that outside the centres of big cities they are more apparent, but this is still a big change even compared to 2007.
Visiting this time I felt the contrast between Chengdu and Beijing to be almost as stark as the difference between the old China of seven years ago and the China of today. Beijing was largely familiar, China as I knew it, but Chengdu seemed almost to reflect a different idea of what the country should be. 

A friend of mine, resident in China since the 90's, describes Chengdu as an example of "development at its least sustainable", and I feel tempted to agree with that, though I remember similar statements being made about China as a whole when I first arrived in-country. The fact that the area of Chengdu in which I was staying was already suffering from massive traffic jams and over-full subway trains without most of the buildings there even being completed yet, or without there even being an obvious user for such buildings, certainly backed up the idea that it was unsustainable.

[Picture: Taken at the Beijing Silk Market during a visit with colleagues. Just what on earth is the point of visiting the market if you can't even haggle any more?]

Thursday 22 May 2014

Why Xinjiang-related terrorism isn't going to stop any time soon.

One Thursday morning in 2000, Stephen Saunders, an Athens-based British diplomat, was driving to work when two men on a motor-cycle pulled up next to his car. One man levelled a Kalashnikov at him and pulled the trigger only for the weapon to jam after firing only one shot, a .45 ACP M1911 semi-automatic pistol was then used to fire the fatal last shots that killed Stephen Saunders.

For our purposes here, this senseless killing of an innocent man by a group of Marxist fanatics is interesting in one detail: the pistol that was used had been used by the assassins had first been used by the same group 20 years before, in 1980, and had probably come into their possession some years even before that during a bank robbery. Stephen Saunders killing was the last kick of a Marxist insurgency that had been rumbling on in Greece since the second world war, on through the years of the 1944-49 Greek civil war where the communists were finally extinguish in a blaze of napalm at Mount Gramos, to the left-wing resistance against the US-backed Greek military junta, to the 1973 uprising at the Athens Polytechnic that gave birth to the 17 November group that carried out Saunders' assassination.

Essentially, armed with only a couple of pistols and fanaticism, and formed in a tight grouping of probably no more than 25 people, 17 November had kept up a pointless campaign of killings that outlasted the last real justification for their existence after Greece's democratisation and economic growth of the 80's and 90's, and carried on for 27 years. No outside support was needed for them to carry out this campaign,  no real justification was needed other than the indoctrination that had already been imbibed by the group during the 60's and 70's, there was no real head to cut off, and no reform that would have made them stop short of implementing the Marxist nightmare that was their final goal.

It is therefore with this in mind that I read of today's car-bombing in Xinjiang  that has killed as many as 31 innocent people.

The insurgency in Xinjing has its own history that stretches back just as far as 17 November's, having its modern roots in the ending of the Soviet-backed autonomous government there in 1949 that at one point threatened to turn the area into a satrap of the USSR, on through the years where the Han Chinese population of the area grew with the expansion of the Bingtuan military-agricultural colonies, to the violence in the area after the Sino-Soviet split, the smashing of religious centres by Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution, to the 1989 uprising and the Gulja Incident.  It shows no sign of stopping now or even in the event of some major liberalisation in China, indeed, even a vote on independence for the territory would probably be a "no", since Han Chinese now form 40% of the population.

Ending discrimination against Uighurs, examples of which were widely discussed after the 2009 uprising (e.g., "Han-only" job adverts ) is a desirable goal in and of itself, but nothing is ever likely to give the terrorists carrying out attacks like today's what they want because what they want - at the very least independence for Xinjiang - is not acheivable. At the same time they do not need the support of the majority, or even a very large minority to keep up these attacks - T.E. Lawrence estimated that the active support of only 2% of the population can sustain an insurgency, a figure born out by the experience in Northern Ireland, where a 1999 survey reported that only 3.6% of people (7.4% of Catholics) admitted to having "a lot of sympathy" for Republican paramilitaries. It seems that even a collapse in support for the insurgency amongst Uighurs in Xinjiang would not stop it from continuing.

Whilst the Chinese authorities can and should be doing more to placate the Uighurs, it seems that whilst such changes might reduce the violence, whatever they do China faces the prospect of these killings carrying on for the forseeable future.

[UPDATE: this piece in today's Dawn on airstrikes in Pakistan hitting an ETIM training-camp demonstrates also the international reach of Xinjiang terrorism. H/T Ryan Mclaughlin]

[Picture: The .45 ACP M1911 pistol used in Stephen Saunders' assassination. Source: The Public Relations Office of the Greek Police via]

Wednesday 21 May 2014

China + Russia = "Chussia"?

Let me say it first, even if I loath these portmanteau joinings-together of country names in order to hype relations between them (worst offenders: Chindia, Chimerica, Chiwan), but "Chussia", or whatever you want to call the relationship between China and Russia that has been hyped as the new "special relationship", is the upcoming thing in world affairs. At the very least, this is what today's news seems to indicate.

Russia and China's signing of an agreement that has been in negotiation since my early days as a Chinese-language student in Nanjing, at a time when Russia's relations with much of the rest of the world are strained seems unlikely to be a coincidence. The prospect of being able to sell the gas to customers other than China for a higher price has distinctly dwindled as the countries of Europe and Japan have implemented policies designed to limit their reliance on a Russia that appears ever more unstable and aggressive.

In the past, commenters have dismissed the future Mr Putin holds forward to Russia as essentially becoming China's "Gas Station" - a country with an economy entirely dependent on hydrocarbon exports to a single customer. Some critics have also pointed out that the biggest threat to Russia's sparsely-populated east is the supposed threat of a land-grab by densely-populated China.

Russian exports to China, however, differ from the kind of China-oriented resource-extraction business seen in Africa ("Chafrica"?), because the Russia-based infrastructure will be entirely Russian-owned and built, and because Russia (unlike the Ukraine) is, with its massive army and nuclear arsenal, not so easily pushed around. It is hard to see Russia becoming totally dependent on China to the point where China calls the shots - indeed, as we've seen in Eastern Europe, being the main supplier of gas to country gives Russia definite power in that country. We are also unlikely to see Russia weakened to the point where she might lose territory in a fashion similar to the way that the Crimea was torn away from the Ukraine.

It would be wrong also to celebrate this as the dawn of some kind of "Eurasian Century" as one commenter at RT, the Kremlin-controlled media outlet did. In the final analysis, if Russia was an ordinary country living at peace with its neighbours, then its leaders wouldn't be rushing to Beijing to finalise this agreement at a price lower than the Russians get elsewhere for their gas - instead they would simply be selling to the highest bidder.

In the end "Chussia" isn't about a shared world-view. It's about how the unstable political systems of both countries limit their options in terms of allies.

[Picture: Vladimir Putin meets then-Chinese Premier Hu Jintao in Shanghai in 2007. Source: via wiki]

Tuesday 20 May 2014

Blogs gone by

I'm afraid this will be a nostalgic post, since I'm now doing a clean-up of my blog roll to weed out those blogs that are no more.

Unfortunately The Modern Leifeng seems to no longer be with us, though his old blogspot blog, last updated in 2010, is still extant, and he's still posting about football in the orient over at Wild East Football. Likewise GongShangFa-blog appears to be "pining for the fiords", which is a pity given that writer's enjoyably acerbic commentary on the China scene.

Froogville, an early blogger on the China scene, stopped updating in late 2012 and hasn't been seen since. I urge all HHGG fans to check out this post which suggests about as good an explanation of the plot of Douglas Adam's masterpiece as is ever likely to be put forward.

Run Run Roll, a Taiwan re-expat blog that charted an expat's attempt to keep living the expat dream for as long as possible, finally rolled to a halt last year it seems and no longer loads. Under The Jacaranda Tree hasn't posted in more than a year, but, more to the point, it's been just too long since they posted anything I was interested in reading - they're out.

Exiledonline is still up, but failed to live up to the standard of the original eXile after they got thrown out of Russia. I urge you to read this excellent 2010 Vanity Fair article which tells their story, but all the same they're out too.

So what's left? Here's some China/expat blogs that are still up-and-running and well worth your attention:

People have been talking about the "slow asphyxiation" of the blogosphere, at least the world of China/expat blogs, for a while now. Personally, whilst I no longer use the blog to simply share links that people I know will be interested in reading (Facebook and Twitter are much better for this) I still occasionally have an idea about something in the news that I'd like to write down somewhere and is just too long for a Facebook post, where it will likely get lost amongst the cat memes anyway. Blogs like the ones above show I'm not the only one who thinks this way.

Monday 19 May 2014

The Second Sino-Vietnamese War (and why it's not going to happen).

Vietnamese demonstrations against drilling for oil in a disputed area of the South China appear to have turned into something resembling an anti-Chinese pogrom against innocent Chinese people living and working in that country last week, leaving as many as 21 dead, with hundreds of Chinese either being evacuated by sea or fleeing into Cambodia.  Now there are reports (admittedly from a rather unreliable source) that Chinese army units are moving towards the Sino-Vietnamese border area.

You could reasonably ask whether we might be seeing the beginning of a military build-up ready for a re-run of China's 1979 Strafexpedition against Vietnam, which happened in the wake of Vietnam's invasion of Cambodia aimed at toppling the genocidal PRC-backed Khmer Rouge regime, and the enactment of oppressive measures against ethnic Han Chinese in Vietnam. Indeed, the place where the military build-up is reported as occuring (Pingxiang) is exactly the same as where the 1979 invasion was launched from.

All the same, I doubt that conflict will occur. China has little to gain by launching such an invasion. The Sino-Vietnamese land border dispute was settled in 2000. Cambodia (now again a Chinese ally) is not an issue and there is no need to distract the Vietnamese military as there was in 1979. China has nothing to gain through fighting in the South China Seas since they can take whatever they like whenever they like there. Finally the 1979 experience was hardly a positive one for China's military, weakened as it was by the Cultural Revolution that had finished three years previously.

Similarly Vietnam will not gain anything from fighting. The disparity between the armed forces of the two countries has, to say the least, not changed in Vietnam's favour since the 1988 skirmish over Johnston south Reef in which Vietnamese forces were roundly defeated.

Instead this build-up is more likely to be an attempt at sabre-rattling in order to placate the understandable outrage of the Chinese public at what has happened, particularly the nationalists whom the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) counts apon as their main base of support. Indeed, it is hard not to see both sides of this dispute as being the result of what may happen when communist governments, facing the bankruptcy of their ideology, seize on nationalism as a justification for their continued rule. It is easy to see how the violent, government-orchestrated 2005 and 2012 anti-Japanese demonstrations in China could have turned into something resembling last week's anti-Chinese pogrom had the government lost control of them.

In fact we may already be seeing the Chinese government's real response. The Chinese state media is correctly outlining how the violence shows that Vietnam may not be a safe destination for investment, though whether China would stand up to similar analysis based on the same logic is another question. Blame is being placed on the US government, the Chinese government's traditional bug-bear, for their support of Vietnam. All of this speaks of a response based on channeling nationalistic sentiment along paths useful to government, rather than readying them for war - though I would not be surprised to see some 'spontaneous' anti-Vietnam demonstrations in China as well.

[Picture: Vietnamese protesting in Hanoi, 11th of May, 2014. VOA via Wiki]