Thursday 24 December 2015

Poland, revisited

One sentiment you occasionally hear expressed by some of the outside observers of Polish affairs that knew the country in the 1980's is that it has become a much more normal, ordinary, (and perhaps even boring?) country since the end of Communism. With the recent election of Law & Justice (known to Poles as PiS) and the wrangling over the constitutional court, this may no longer be quite the case.

Visiting Poland for Christmas holidays I find that regular demonstrations now occur in the city of Wroclaw, and many others. This was certainly not the case a year ago.

On the one hand we have the supporters of the former governing part (Civic Platform, or PO as it is known in Poland) and others who characterise PiS's recent changes to the constitutional court as a coup - I have even heard people in all seriousness compare them simultaneously to the Nazis and the Bolsheviks. It is fair to say that almost of all the people I know in Poland are of this opinion, though this is merely evidence of the kind of people who I associate with and demonstrates, yet again, that one cannot simply rely on one's acquaintances to give you a full picture of the political sentiment of a country.

On the other there are the supporters of PiS (who are the majority of the voting public) who believe that these changes are necessary in order to address some of the compromises made in the negotiations that brought about the fall of communism in the country. Finally, there is, even in a fairly liberal city like Wroclaw, a small but substantial fringe of supporters of fascist parties like the ONR and NOP who believe that things should be taken much, much further. The graffiti of the supporters of these far-right parties can be seen throughout the city, often paradoxically paired with the symbol of the wartime Polish resistance.

My personal instinct is that things cannot possibly be so serious as all that - coming from a country without a constitutional court, or even a single codified constitution, it is hard to see what the fuss is all about. This is particularly  the case when PO seems to have contributed significantly to the 'crisis' by trying to rush through the appointment of judges to the constitutional court prior to its electoral defeat.

I am however a bit concerned by the rhetoric of some of the prominent members of PiS (Jarosław Kaczyński described those who demonstrated against PiS's policies as "the worst kind of Poles") and by the very odd incident of a night-time raid on a Warsaw-based NATO-affiliated counter-intelligence organisation. This is, however, still a long way from Putinism or even Viktor Orban-style down-grading of democracy and I cannot see the idea of a potential EU condemnation of PiS actions as anything but very unwise - it smacks of exactly the kind of interference in internal affairs that has done some much to alienate Britons from the EU, and will seem hypocritical coming from an organisation that has so often rode roughshod over the democratically-expressed wishes of national polities.

Tuesday 15 December 2015

Posted without comment

Monday 30 November 2015

Japan's "scientific" whaling

So the Japanese government has announced that it's going to permit further whaling for "scientific" purposes even though the ICJ reportedly ruled that all Japanese whaling should cease.

Whilst I don't really know enough to comment on the legality or otherwise of Japanese whaling, the one thing that anyone who has spent a while living and working in Japan can easily comment on is the claim that this whaling is scientific: put simply, it's very hard to believe that any scientific purpose is served by this whaling. Instead the whale meat harvested for supposed "scientific purposes" is actually sold throughout Japan in specialist restaurants as well as from stalls at events.

I found this out first hand when I went to a company banquet back in 2010 in Kochi, on the south coast of Shikoku island, and was served what appeared to be a thick, layered, rubbery-looking substance with tiny bits of meat in it. It looked, smelt, and tasted foul, and even before discovering what it was I felt sick - it is hard to understand how anyone would eat such whale meat by choice.

The day after the banquet we went on a tour of a local museum dedicated primarily to local hero Sakamoto Ryoma. Whilst the museum was interesting enough, it had a section given over to "local cultural practices", with dioramas showing the hunting of walls by the locals in ill-defined "ancient times".  It was easy to connect the dots - like similar practices elsewhere in the world, this appears to be one maintained in the face of outside opposition primarily because the opposition to it comes from outside the community in which it occurs and is defended as "traditional".

[Picture: a detail from a painting showing whaling off the coast of Wakayama. Via Wiki]

Monday 26 October 2015

A whistle-stop visit to Hong Kong

Right now I'm sat in Hong Kong airport waiting for a flight to Taipei. Hong Kong is much the wonderful mix of a place that I remembered it to be. I spent yesterday at a friend's wedding up in the hills of the New Territories, where English, Cantonese, and Mandarin joined in a merry cacophony about the dining tables.

On a quick visit like this it's hard to draw much of an impression of a place: the biggest concern on most people's minds was the ever-increasing price of property her - a not dissimilar worry to that on the minds of a lot of people back in the UK. The biggest difference I noticed was the increase in the prominence of Mandarin in Hong Kong, a language that more and more Hong Kongers are at least trying to get some familiarity with, though for professionals it has not yet knocked English off the number two spot.

Monday 31 August 2015

Jeremy Corbyn and Press TV

I've written a few times about the phenomenon of western European and American journalists and commentators appearing on the state-run media outlets of autocratic regimes, such as Press TV, RT, CCTV 9, and the like, and the moral hazard inevitably involved in doing so. Whilst I'm willing to accept the protests of those who say that appearing on these channels does not mean that they actually support the regimes that control their editorial content, it really is hard to believe that these people were not guilty of (at minimum) extreme naivety and incuriousness.

It is therefore with very little surprise that I read that (left-wing hopeful for the leadership of the Labour Party) Jeremy Corbyn regularly appeared on Press TV in recent years (he stood in for George Galloway), even after Press TV's activities during the Iranian regimes repression of the Green Revolution caused many to question whether it was appropriate to appear on this channel. To quote one journalist who refused to appear on the channel: "it seems to give legitimacy to a regime that treats its own people like sh*t and spreads poison and violence around the world".

The comments made by him when appearing on the channel that have caused the most controversy (that Bin Laden's death was a "tragedy") are actually defensible - whilst few tears were shed over Bin Laden's demise, it would have been better if he had stood trial. What for me is very difficult to defend (or even comprehend) is how Corbyn could have, in good conscience, appeared on a channel that has previously trumpeted holocaust-denial and defended the execution of people for the 'crime' of being gay, a channel that had previously broadcast the torture-extracted 'confession' of an Iranian human rights activist to working with foreign 'spies' disguised as journalists. This, by itself, should cast doubt as to whether he is at all suited to high office in a democratic country like the UK.

Unfortunately, Jeremy Corbyn's supporters seem totally immune to evidence of his unsuitability as Labour party leader, which is legion, so knowledge of his appearances on Press TV is unlikely to shake their resolve either. I totally agree with Alex Massie that the likely outcome of his selection as party leader (which now seems inevitable) will be a total slaughter at the polls in 2020. However, there is always the risk in politics that some disaster will tip one party out of power and another in, regardless of how suited it is for rule, so there is always the possibility, albeit slim, that this man might one day become the leader of the UK - and that would be a disaster compounded by a disaster.

[EDIT: Interestingly, Jeremy Corbyn has declared at least two payments of up to £5,000 in recent years from Press TV for appearances]

Monday 17 August 2015

"More market-friendly"

One of the reasons given for the People's Bank of China's devaluation of the Yuan was to allow the currency to reach "more market-friendly" value, one closer to that at which offshore Yuan are being sold on the open market. After all, the devaluation wasn't achieved directly by fiat, but instead by allowing the trading price to vary within a 2% band and, officially, no longer holding the reference rate at a fixed value but instead using the previous-days closing price to decide the reference rate for the next day.

The problem is that PBOC seems intent on deciding what the previous day's reference rate is by intervening massively in the market in the final minutes of the trading day. That at least is what appears to be happening based on the volume of trading seen in the last few minutes of the trading day in the above graph.

Does this really matter? Well, to the extent that the PBOC loses credibility through apparent rigging of the market, and to the extent that this change was trumpeted as an example of the Chinese authorities "freeing" the Yuan, supposed boosting Beijing's case for the Yuan joining the major world currencies in the special drawing rights basket, yes it does matter.

[Click here to see the original graph on Neil Gough's Twitter feed] 

Saturday 15 August 2015

The Apology

Yesterday the Japanese Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, gave a speech on the occasion of the 70th anniversary of Japan's surrender to the Allies, which brought an end to the Second World War. Whilst re-iterating the expressions of remorse for the harm caused by the war which Japan launched on Asia, and expressing the view that Japan had advanced along the road to war and been a challenger to the international order, the speech made no new form of apology, which has led to renewed criticism of Japan's leadership for being insufficiently contrite about the war from Japan's Asian neighbours.

Personally, I do not at all believe that there is any form of apology that Shinzo Abe could have given that would fully mollify the South Koreans and Chinese. The South Koreans at least recognised that a deeper apology was given by former Prime Minister Murayama and asked why he did not repeat this as Junichiro Koizumi did in 2005, though their response at the time Murayama and Koizumi made their apologies did not seem to recognise them as full apologies either. The Chinese, on the other hand, seem not to recognise that any real apology of any kind has ever been made by Japan's leaders.

The reasons for this have little to do with lasting memories of Japanese war crimes and crimes against humanity in the years between 1931 and 1945, which were numerous and terrible. This can be stated with confidence simply because in the decades immediately following the war criticism of Japan for being insufficiently contrite was so much more muted, both from China and Korea. For example, the document that established relations between the People's Republic of China and Japan dealt with war-guilt in only two places. Here:

"The Japanese side is keenly aware of Japan's responsibility for causing enormous damages in the past to the Chinese people through war and deeply reproaches itself . . . The Chinese side welcomes this"
And here:

"The Government of the People's Republic of China declares that in the interest of friendship between the peoples of China and Japan, it renounces its demand for war indemnities from Japan"

The statement felt no need to note insufficient contrition on the part of the Japanese, nor was this expressed by any of the officials responsible for re-establishing relations on the Chinese side either. Such misgivings, if they existed, had clearly be shelved for later generations to address. China at that time was supportive of various Japanese initiatives, including their resumption of sovereignty over Okinawa, despite later claims from people like (PLA General) Luo Yuan within China that Okinawa really belongs to them.

In Chinese affairs the change from a broadly-friendly position towards Japan to one suspicious towards Japan came later. Whilst Taiwan under the ROC, and to a less extent Hong Kong, saw protests about the 1972 transfer of administrative rights over the Senkaku Islands, these were not echoed in mainland China. Instead it was with the decline in communist ideology in mainland China and its replacement with nationalist rhetoric that differences with Japan and the war became an endless source of material to inspire such sentiment amongst young people through the education system and the media.

That this was so was instantly apparent to anyone who observed the 2005 anti-Japanese protests, sparked by the approval of denialist text-books for use in at most 18 schools in Japan, which were overwhelmingly made up of young people, and for which supporting sentiment was most widely expressed amongst young people. As the sellers of Japanese goods and Japan-themed restaurants tried to protect themselves against attack by displaying Chinese flags and poster-sized pictures of Mao Zedong in their windows, the people who marched outside their doors were overwhelmingly of university age. In Nanjing, where I was working and studying at the time, wide-scale protest was headed off by the authorities after it had outgrown its usefulness by the simple expedient of threatening to expel students who took part.

Whilst the issue of whether Japan's leadership and government has been contrite enough about the war, done enough to educate people as to what actually happened, and done enough to counter those who deny that Japanese war crimes occurred or that Japan was responsible for the war, is a real one. However, it's clear that in the People's Republic at least it is basically a tool for use both in domestic control and in external diplomacy.

In countries which suffered at the hands of that Japanese where the impact of nationalism is less strongly felt, including my own, such things are commonly regarded as of lesser importance than the trade a cultural links with Japan. Whilst the UK did not suffer even nearly as badly as China did at the hands of the Japanese, I heard similar sentiments expressed in Malaysia when I visited there back in 2009, in the Philippines when I visited there in 2003, and from Indonesians I have been acquainted with - all places which suffered greatly at the hands of the Japanese.

Abe's speech also contained one very sane statement:
"In Japan, the postwar generations now exceed eighty per cent of its population. We must not let our children, grandchildren, and even further generations to come, who have nothing to do with that war, be predestined to apologize. Still, even so, we Japanese, across generations, must squarely face the history of the past. We have the responsibility to inherit the past, in all humbleness, and pass it on to the future."
At some point the Second World War will merge into the past and its grievances will have to be set to one side. It is certainly illogical to demand apologies for events that occurred before the people who you are demanding them from were even born. This point is fast approaching, and these demands for apologies cannot be allowed to continue beyond it. The alternative is the idea that it correct to inflict some kind of biblical punishment "unto the third and fourth generation" on the Japanese people.

[Picture: The letter sent to former British inmates of Japanese POW camps by the King welcoming them on their return to the UK] 

What the hell just happened in China?

It's been a crazy, dangerous period in Chinese affairs. Firstly, following on from the stock-market crash which saw indexes fall by 30% over a couple of weeks, and which was only stopped by suspending trading more than 1000 companies (hundreds are still suspended even now) and restricting selling, we've seen a slew of economic data that strongly suggests that an economic slow-down is now in progress, despite government GDP growth figures that suggest otherwise

This was then followed by a devaluation of the Yuan by what, whilst it was not a large amount in the grand scheme of things, was done in a way that seemed almost calculated to destroy government credibility on the issue of the value of the Yuan. It came after the government said it would not devalue the Yuan for the entirely valid reason that this would be counter to their goal of encouraging a consumer society in place of the export-driven economic model of the past few decades. It was a "one-off" devaluation that was then continued for three days.  It was announced as an attempt to lower the Yuan to a more market-friendly value, but when the value kept falling the PBOC then stepped back in to buoy up the price and we saw volatility in the price go right to zero as the PBOC fought to stop any further decline in the value of the Yuan.

Meanwhile the gap between the onshore (i.e., government-controlled) and market-decided offshore values of the Yuan was not closed by much, allowing the onshore value to sink just re-set expectation as to the offshore value. This won't be the last time it happens.

After this, came the series of massive explosions at the port of Tanggu in the Tianjin Economic Development Area which is now reported to have killed more than 85 people.  Whilst this is the kind of accident that can occur in any country (indeed, just today a chemical plant in Texas saw multiple explosions), the distrust of the official government explanations behind it, the censorship of stories about it, the blocking of foreign media trying to report on the story, all speak of a country in which the government still seeks to control what the public think about domestic events. The content of the rumours around the blasts is hardly likely to be music to the government's ears: not least of all story that the owner of Ruihai Enterprises, the company on whose premises the explosions occured, is a relative of Li Ruihuan, a former politburo member who hails from the Tianjin area.

Finally, came the senseless killing of a young woman in Beijing's Sanlitun district and the stabbing of her French husband to whom she had only recently been married. Whilst Chinese police have proclaimed themselves baffled as to the motives of the killing, social media is reporting that this was motivated by hatred of foreigners. It would be deeply unfair to extrapolate from this incident to a picture of growing anti-foreigner sentiment in China in general - in my experience the majority of Chinese people do not harbour such sentiment though a sizable minority do. However, the government hardly does anything discourage such sentiment when pretty much everything bad that happens in China is intimated in government propaganda as being linked to shady foreign forces.

Above the daily churn of stories of the kind which might emerge anywhere, China seems to be entering a period of growing instability. Whilst I agree with Eric Fish that no-one really knows what will happen long-term in China, the very fact that no-one can predict with confidence what direction China is going in speaks volumes about the country's instability.

[Wrecked cars and buildings damaged by the Tianjin blast in a residential area near the port. Via Wiki]

Thursday 30 July 2015

UK Visas & Immigration on Ai Wei Wei: Embarassing, stupid, and wrong

Back in 2010 I had the pleasure of catching Ai Wei Wei's sunflower-seed exhibit at the Tate Modern art museum with a Taiwanese friend who was visiting the UK. Whilst looking at millions of artificial porcelain seeds it not quite my thing the exhibition had a certain immensity to it, realising all the work that must have gone into making these seeds: many of them, but each one an individual. The parallel with the Chinese nation itself was obvious, and remarked on in reviews of the exhibit.

It is therefore with intense embarrassment and not a small measure of anger that I read of the UK Foreign Office's decision to limit Ai Weiwei's visa to the UK for the preposterous reason that he has a criminal records undeclared on his visa application form by a certain A. Cramer, entry clearance manager at the UK's Beijing embassy.

In his letter to Ai Weiwei explaining the decision (copied above), Cramer refers to it being a "matter of public record" that Ai had "previously received a criminal conviction in China". This is the precise opposite of the truth. It is in fact a matter of public record that Ai Weiwei was imprisoned for 81 days without being charged with anything, far less convicted, and that this extra-judicial punishment was the only proceedings even vaguely resembling criminal proceedings against Ai that have been in the public eye.  A separate, almost certainly politically-motivated law-suit was brought against Ai for unpaid taxes, but being a civil matter, this is nothing to do with criminal charges.

Whilst some have said they believe this may be an excuse for getting Ai Weiwei out of the country whilst Xi Jinping is visiting, I dearly hope this is not the case. Having seen first hand the mindlessly bureaucratic attitude that some embassy officials can take, and the blockheaded obstinance with which they refuse to change their minds even when proved totally incorrect it might even be the case that this is a genuine mistake by the embassy officials - but I'm afraid this may be wishful thinking on my part.

Of course, given that the UK is home to all sorts of activists who might make Xi's visit an embarrassment, from Free Tibet activists to Fa Lun Gongers, even the theory that this might be a sop to Xi makes little sense. One is left with the impression that UK officials have decided to confirm validity on extra-judicial punishments meted out by the CCP for no real reason at all.

[UPDATE: The decision has thankfully been reversed, perhaps this decision really was the act of a lone bureaucrat?]

Sunday 19 July 2015

Greek lessons for Chinese GDP growth

As well as being an object lesson in why national debt is something that should concern a country's leadership, and why parties attempting to sell their electorates on a dubious mixture of debt-renunciation and increased borrowing-funded spending should be avoided like the plague, Greece also has lessons for us on just how far national statistics can be skewed in the absence of independent auditing and analysis. As Michael Lewis discovered in a 2010 article on the causes of the Greek crisis:

When Papaconstantinou arrived here, last October, the Greek government had estimated its 2009 budget deficit at 3.7 percent. Two weeks later that number was revised upward to 12.5 percent and actually turned out to be nearly 14 percent. He was the man whose job it had been to figure out and explain to the world why. “The second day on the job I had to call a meeting to look at the budget,” he says. “I gathered everyone from the general accounting office, and we started this, like, discovery process.” Each day they discovered some incredible omission. A pension debt of a billion dollars every year somehow remained off the government’s books, where everyone pretended it did not exist, even though the government paid it; the hole in the pension plan for the self-employed was not the 300 million they had assumed but 1.1 billion euros; and so on. “At the end of each day I would say, ‘O.K., guys, is this all?’ And they would say ‘Yeah.’ The next morning there would be this little hand rising in the back of the room: ‘Actually, Minister, there’s this other 100-to-200-million-euro gap.’ ”

Indeed, guaranteeing the independence of the Greek statistical agency to prevent this kind of thing happening again was a key demand of Greece's creditors at the negotiations for Greece's bail-out, a request that has now been accepted by the Greek government and approved by the Greek parliament.

It was with this in mind that I read Christopher Balding's latest post over at the Nanfang on how China's GDP growth has some somewhat suspicious irregularities in it.

Anyone who has followed Chinese affair for a while will be aware that Chinese GDP statistics have some problems with them, such as, for example, the tendency of nearly all provinces and municipalities to publish growth figures higher than the average. It has been assumed, however, that national statistics are more reliable than those collected by local governments, and of course these are the only statistics available so there is little choice in which statistics to use. Balding's piece, however, give very persuasive (but not absolutely conclusive) evidence that the national statistics may also be highly problematic. This includes:
  • What appears to be the wild under-estimation of inflation. The example Balding gives is the private consumer price index (CPI), which has increased by only 8% (not annually: in total) since 2000. The idea that the cost of housing in China could have only increased by this much is utterly preposterous to anyone familiar with the vast increase in housing cost in that country that has left a generation of young families struggling to buy a place to live. It also goes against the findings of independent studies that house prices have increased by roughly 10% per year since 2004. Obviously, if you under-estimate inflation, then you over-estimate actual GDP growth, since GDP growth is adjusted for inflation by apply a deflator roughly equivalent tor inflation - the larger the deflator, the lower GDP growth will be.
  • Estimating the percentage of households renting at 12%,  meaning the 53% inflation in rent costs in the 2000-2014 period applies only to a relatively small portion of the population. To anyone with experience of China during this period, this does seem very low, however obviously you should not decide this figure is inaccurate based simply on anecdotal evidence.
  • Applying, since the year 2000, an 80:20 urban:rural weighting to statistics in a country that has only recently become majority-urban and is still only around 55-60% urban-dwelling. Given that it is urban areas which see the highest growth and the lowest price-inflation, this would clearly slant the figures towards higher growth and lower inflation.
  • 1.1% growth in electricity consumption for the Jan-May 2015 period compared to the previous year. The growth in electrical consumption has long been treated as an unofficial measure of GDP (although there are obvious problems with using it in this fashion) but the discrepancy between the increase in electricity consumption and the 7% GDP growth figure given for 2014 is quite a big one.
  • Corporate profits grew by only 0.6% (I assume this is for 2014 - Balding doesn't give a source in his post). Again, the question is: how this can possibly be in a country where the economy is supposedly growing by 7% a year? Really there are only three options: unobserved massive growth in the state sector (highly unlikely), massive fraud on the part of corporations to avoid tax (unlikely), or the GDP growth figure is wrong.
  • A 20% fall in imports in 2014 that has driven some of Chinese trade partners into recession, yet does not seem to be at all reflected in trends in the GDP statistics. Normally you would expect such a massive decline to be the result of some internal changes visible in the GDP growth figures, but not here.
Again, none of these are absolutely conclusive, but they at least should give anyone treating the Chinese GDP growth figures as even being broadly indicative of the state of the Chinese economy food for thought. China's statistical agency, the National Bureau of Statistics China (NBSC) is every bit as vulnerable to political pressure as Greece's one was, probably more so because in a closed society lacking free media like China manipulation of the statistics would be much easier to get away with.

Whilst I understand the hesitancy of publications like The Economist to concede that the NBSC is doing much more than "smoothing" the data, Balding's evidence (if accurate) hints at much deeper manipulation. Whilst no-one wants to play the role of doom-monger about the state of the Chinese economy (particularly since Gordon G. Chang has that role sewed up), this does suggest that China's GDP growth has been much slower in recent years than official statistics portray them to be, and may well be around the 5-6% mark (or less) that was predicted earlier in the decade - a rate that would be far from disastrous. 

Finally, there is the question of whether it will ever be possible to know the true rate of economic growth. Balding is undertaking research into this very subject,and I wish him luck with this, but it may well be that, as with Greece, the value of an independent statistics agency won't be recognised until a financial crisis has washed over the country.

Wednesday 24 June 2015


Last night we were promised aurora. Either they didn't happen, or I missed them as my attention was elsewhere, but something much better happened instead: a 7lb 9oz miracle came into the world. Still trying to come to terms with it, but this is what it's all about, all of it.

Sunday 21 June 2015

"Understanding" Putin

Compare this:

The German result, where the majority of those interviewed said they would not support assisting a NATO ally that was attacked by Russia, is particularly disappointing given that it was commitment of Federal Republic of Germany's (BRD's) NATO allies to defend it against Soviet aggression that ensured its existence during the cold war. 

Whilst German circumspection in those days might have been ascribed to the thought of their own country becoming the battleground for a NATO-Soviet conflict, in the question asked above no such excuse exists. Indeed it is the indomitable Poles who would be the most likely to find their country fought over in a NATO-Russian conflict in the above list but who are still amongst the most loyal to their commitment to their fellow NATO allies. Doubtless the strange sympathy some East Germans have for their former occupiers (totally unlike their immediate neighbours to the east) is also a factor here.

That the countries whose populations are least likely to wish to honour their commitment to their allies if they are attacked by Russia are also those whose leadership in the last decade have enjoyed the most cosy relations with Putin's regime is also something of a recognisable pattern here. From Gerd Schroeder's partying which Putin, to Berlusconi's dalliances with paramours on "Putin's Bed", to Nicholas Sarkozy's arms sales to (and excuse making for) Moscow, Putin's connections with the leadership in Germany, Italy, and France, appears to have legitimised his rule to an extent in the eyes of some in those countries. 

Of course, no leader of the past decade seems to have been totally immune to Putin's charms. Tony Blair is currently in St. Petersburg attending the even that has been dubbed "Davos for Dictators", whilst George Bush famously said that he was "able to get a sense of [Putin's] soul". Fortunately given the mood favouring further conquests of neighbouring country's territory in Russia, aggression against neighbouring states by a dictatorship is still regarded as something of a red line in the UK and US that people are not yet willing to reason away or "understand".

What Beijing still gets out of Hong Kong

I think it's worthwhile in these times when Hong Kong is only ever talked about as a millstone around the neck of the PRC government to reflect on the value that Beijing and the PRC elite as a whole still garner from Hong Kong being (at least in name, if increasingly less so in fact) a semi-autonomous part of the People's Republic of China. Ho-fung Hung over at China File does a good job of running down the concrete benefits of the H.K. S.A.R. that the CCP leadership still enjoys:

The crux of the issue is that Beijing still desperately needs Hong Kong as a front man to do lots of things. It uses Hong-Kong-registered entities to conduct sensitive deals such as the purchase of former Soviet carriers, the digging up of a canal in Nicaragua, and the hiring of a former Blackwater CEO to assemble team of mercenaries to protect China’s investment in Africa. It offers Hong Kong as a safe haven for its notorious friends like Mugabe to store their private wealth (Mugabe’s daughter graduated recently from the City University of Hong Kong, his wife is spotted regularly in the most luxurious shopping malls in Hong Kong, and the family owned a villa in the Jackie Chan Castle in Hong Kong). Hong Kong is also an important channel through which the princelings move their assets to the U.S. (After Bo Xilai’s downfall, it was disclosed that he maintained vast property in Hong Kong and his wife, Gu Kailai, has a Hong Kong identity card). And above all, Beijing needs Hong Kong’s autonomous status for developing a RMB offshore market, internationalizing the currency without liberalizing China’s capital account. All these require foreign countries, most importantly the U.S., to treat Hong Kong as a de facto independent entity and treat the migrants, goods, and capital from Hong Kong as different from those coming from mainland China. 
Whilst the propaganda value of Hong Kong's return to the motherland may well have been long since used up on the mainland, and the essential failure of the "One Country, Two Systems"  in Hong Kong means that the idea of attracting the Taiwanese into Beijing's orbit by offering it is now a dead letter, the value of Hong Kong to the CCP government is not so different to what it was during the 60's when it was the small opening through which China communicated with the outside world. Whilst nowadays the PRC's access to world markets is immeasurably greater than it was in the 1960's, there are still many ways in which it, as a still-developing country, benefits from the existence of a first-world economy over which it has easy access and control.

In last year's white paper on "One Country, Two Systems" the Chinese government explicitly stated that Hong Kong's autonomy came "solely from the authorization by the central leadership" and was subject to the central leadership's authorisation. It then went on to state that Hong Kong would only keep its autonomy so long as it "fully [respected] the socialist system practiced on the mainland". This was a clear threat that the PRC government did not see itself restricted by the Sino-British agreement and could withdraw Hong Kong's autonomy at any time if it felt that it was a threat to the PRC's rule - and given how widely the PRC government defines what threatens it in other areas, this could be at any point.

However, this threat seems pretty empty when you consider just how much especially the PRC elite, with their HK bank accounts, HK property, HK ID cards and so-forth actually benefit from the HK SAR's continued existence.

Whilst the PRC does have a far more pliable entity for these purposes in the form of Macau, Macau never enjoyed the credibility of Hong Kong as a financial centre. Moreover, much of the credibility that Macau did have pre-1999 has been lost amidst scandals surrounding the activities of organisations like Banco Delta Asia. Reducing Hong Kong to the same pliant state that Macau is in would likely lead to a similar loss of credibility, and hence usefulness.

[Picture: The future Chinese aircraft carrier Liaoning is towed through the Bosphorous, supposedly on its way to Macau to become a floating casino after being purchased by a Hong Kong company that instead appears to have been a front for the People's Liberation Army. Via Wiki]

Saturday 20 June 2015

Douche, Interrupted

If you haven't already, please go and read this masterful take-down by Alec Ash of yet another China expat memoir expounding the same lazy tropes as every other self-published expat memoir does over at Beijing Cream. I'm not even going to mention the title of the book, since it is somewhat incredibad, but here's the money quote from the review:
For someone who lived in China for sixteen years, it’s hard to believe how little of interest happened to Olden. He tries valiantly to keep things topical – the Belgrade embassy bombing, the Internet boom – but inevitably gets sucked back into the dull minutia of his sexpatscapades. In one meat market, he picks up a girl with the sparkling line “Hey – can I buy you a drink?” Her reply is “OK. First, toilet”, and I know how she feels.
Go read the whole thing.

Thursday 18 June 2015

In Hong Kong: a bizarre end to Beijing's electoral reform program

As has been pretty much inevitable since Beijing's decision to offer what amounts to something only vaguely resembling democratic elections under universal suffrage, opposition parties in Hong Kong voted down Beijing's proposed reform package today. This was not a surprise as the proposal of government selection of 2-3 candidates for Chief Executive (CE) who would then be voted for in a popular election as a replacement for the current system of direct government selection of the CE, which at least allowed opposition parties to nominate a candidate for the post if not win, was almost tailor-made to be rejected by Hong Kong's pro-Democracy camp.

What was not expected was that the majority of votes cast in the Hong Kong's Legislative Council (LegCo) would be against Beijing's proposals, with the proposal being defeated by 28 votes to 8. Since the pro-Beijing camp is guaranteed a majority in the LegCo as only half of the LegCo's 70 seats are elected through universal suffrage, with the other half being selected by so-called "functional constituencies" (i.e., selected by businesses, trade unions, universities etc.) over which Beijing has powerful influence, this was a surprise.

The expected result was that Beijing's proposals would just barely miss the 2/3rds majority of all votes (i.e., 47 votes) required for them to pass. If there was any hesitancy about the result, it was the idea  that there might be last-minute defections from the pro-Democracy camp which would allow it to pass. However, rather than voting for the package, the majority of the pro-Beijing legislators staged a walk out supposedly because one of their legislators still hadn't arrived.

The end result is that just enough votes were cast (36 or 37 depending on sources*) for the vote to be quorate (35 votes are required), with the majority of pro-Beijing legislators spared from actually ever having voted for the package. It is hard to think that this wasn't by design, but what purpose it might achieve is a total mystery. Whilst much of the campaigning by the pro-Beijing side in favour of the government's proposals seems to have been half-hearted (giving a thumbs-up from the top of an open-top bus seems to have the limit of the amount of effort a lot of pro-Beijing politicians were willing to make) casting a vote for the package would hardly have been a stretch. Whatever ignominy might be involved in voting for a defeated package, it can hardly be as bad as turning up and then refusing to vote for the package that you supposedly support.

Zooming out, this means that (for the first time ever?) a Beijing-proposed package of policies has been defeated by a vote in an (at least partly) democratically-elected chamber. Even the Article 23 security laws were never actually put to a final vote, and whilst a previously-proposed expansion of the electoral committee was voted down, this wasn't directly proposed and championed by Beijing. Depending on whose polling you believe the result may also reflect the opinion of the majority of Hong Kong people.

The government's reaction so far has also been somewhat odd. We are told that the NPC's "decision" on the Hong Kong voting system "will stand", as if it were an interpretation of the law rather than a policy proposal. How exactly a package of proposed policies can "stand" when it has been defeated is beyond me, and this announcement probably reflects more the CCP's refusal to acknowledge failing in anything, past or present. Perhaps this is to be taken as an indication that the CCP believes that it met its commitment to deliver universal suffrage in the territory by 2017 through its offer of quasi-democratic elections and need do no more?

At the very least it seems that there is unlikely to be any further packages of proposals put forward. The CCP government refused any real negotiation of the initial proposals, denied the existence of any "Plan B" in case of defeat, and despite the claim of some pro-Beijing politicians that Hong Kongers could "pocket" the reform package and demand more in future the government recently declared that regardless of how the vote went that it would be the only offer made.

Some may seek to blame the pro-Democracy camp for blocking what would at least have been elections for the CE post under a system in which all Hong Kong citizens could have voted, but the fact that the package would essentially have blocked opposition politicians from even competing, and that the government refused to set even a vague timetable for further reforms to follow it, left them with no choice in this matter. Hong Kong's current political system allows an opposition to compete, if not win political control, but the CCP's proposal would have denied them even this.

*Global Times counts a single abstention in the total, I think this represents the LegCo President Jasper Tsang. EDIT: Since no "abstain" votes were counted, it seems that GT is just wrong on this. One pro-Beijing legislator (Poon Shiu-ping) apparently confused by the walk-out, apparently just sat there without pressing a button to vote. Amazingly, what Poon Shiu-ping did is still more credible than blindly following the party leaders into a walkout for essentially no reason, since he did at least stay in the chamber. As Big Lychee points out, nothing is more demonstrative of the slavish obedience of the pro-Beijing block.

EDIT2: This seems pretty relevant -

[Picture: Hong Kong's Legislative Council building in Admiralty. Via Wiki]

Monday 25 May 2015

"Ambiguous warfare" in Manchuria and the Ukraine.

I've recently been doing a bit of amateurish research into the 1931 Manchurian "Incident" (a curiously anodyne word for the brutal invasion, conquest, and annexation under the paper-thin excuse of establishing an independent state) with the half-formed idea of doing some kind of project on it. Whilst there aren't really any good histories written specifically on the subject, there is a wealth of material that touches on it in passing, as well as information collected for the 1946 Tokyo war crimes trials and the 1932 Lytton Commission. Going through it, it is striking how closely Japan's 1931-33 aggression in Manchuria parallels the "ambiguous warfare" of modern-day Russia in the Ukraine. These parallels include:
  • An attempt to seize part of a state following a change in government of the whole of it. In the case of China, Japan's aggression followed the defeat of Marshal Zhang Zuolin (Chang Tso-Lin) by Chiang Kai-Shek's northern expedition, their intervention to prevent the KMT armies pursuing him into Manchuria, and their assassination of the Marshal in favour of his son who then proved much less amenable. In the Ukraine, the Russian seizure of the Crimea followed the overthrow of the Moscow-friendly Yanukovich government.
  • An ambiguous situation created by the presence of locally-based troops. Japanese troops were already based in Manchuria to supposedly defend their railway there, a situation that made it not immediately clear that an invasion was in fact underway. In the Crimea, Russian soldiers were already present due to their basing rights in the peninsula.
  • Propaganda warfare and information-control. The Japanese barred the area around Shenyang (Mukden) to foreign journalists, held press-conferences relaying their version of events, and even employed foreign journalists such as George Gorman and H.W. Kinney to write articles for Japanese-controlled English-language media such as the Manchuria Daily News. The parallels to Russian propaganda outlet RT (and, for that matter, CCP-controlled outlets like Global Times and CCTV 9) hardly need be pointed out.
  • The abuse of ceasefire agreements. Between the initial seizure of Shenyang in 1931 and the conclusion of the 1933 Tanggu Truce, the Japanese repeatedly concluded cease-fire agreements with the Chinese and then broke them, seizing ever-larger chunks of Manchuria. We have seen the same process at work in Eastern Ukraine, with the first Minsk Protocol concluded, then broken, and now the second Minsk accord teetering on collapse.
It is easy to draw parallels from past evils to the modern day and seek to condemn modern day evils as the equal to the previous ones, but that is not my intention here. The likelihood of Russia invading the rest of the Ukraine and slaughtering the population of the capital city as the Japanese did in China in 1937 is low. What is important to note here is that the "ambiguous" or "hybrid" warfare that Vladimir Putin has been credited in some quarters as essentially inventing is in fact nothing new, and that the effect of allowing it to succeed unpunished can be to inspire more open forms of aggression.

Just as a failure to respond to Japan's aggression in Manchuria helped to inspire more open forms of aggression from Italy and Germany, the ongoing failure of the international community to reverse Russia's invasion of the Ukraine and annexation of its territory may well cause people both in China and elsewhere to wonder if they could not also do the same thing. Indeed, China's recent assertiveness in the South China Sea, with construction of island-bases there (itself a form of ambiguous warfare) having greatly accelerated since March 2014, may be the product of exactly this kind of thinking.

[Picture: Japanese troops enter Shenyang, 1931] 

Thursday 7 May 2015

The View From The Polling Station

I spent a few hours today standing outside a polling station wearing the rosette of a political party whose identity I'm sure will not surprise regular readers of this blog. The atmosphere was friendly - I saw several parents taking their children with them into the voting booth to show them what democracy looks like. There were a few gripes, and a few "I'm not voting for your lot"s, but they mostly fair enough. The representatives of various parties took turns to hold the leads of the many dogs whose owners took them to the polling station with them, and otherwise chatted quite naturally. Regardless of all the nonsense some of the political parties put out, the UK is still a very healthy democracy - the ongoing sentiment of rolling-crisis is a mirage. Whatever the results of this election - and they are likely to be somewhat messy - the UK will muddle through much as it always has done.

Monday 4 May 2015

A Timely Correction

As far as I know, the PRC has never retracted, or re-examined, its claims that UN forces in Korea during the Korean war used bacteriological and/or chemical weapons. This is a pity because evidence that has come out since the collapse of the USSR puts it beyond doubt that this never, ever happened. As the USSR council of ministers itself resolved on the 2nd of May, 1953 (after Stalin's death):

For Mao Zedong

"The Soviet Government and the Central Committee of the CPSU were misled. The spread in the press of information about the use by the Americans of bacteriological weapons in Korea was based on false information. The accusations against the Americans were fictitious."

To give recommendations:
To cease publication in the press of materials accusing the Americans of using bacteriological weapons in Korea and China.

To consider it desirable that the Government of the PRC (DPRK) declare in the UN that the resolution of the General Assembly of 23 April about investigating the facts of the use by the Americans of bacteriological weapons on the territory of China (Korea) cannot be legal, since it was made without the participation of representatives of the PRC (DPRK). Since there is no use of bacteriological weapons, there is no reason to conduct an investigation.

In a tactical way to recommend that the question of bacteriological warfare in China (Korea) be removed from discussion in international organizations and organs of the UN.

Soviet workers responsible for participation in the fabrication of the so-called "proof" of the use of bacteriological weapons will receive severe punishment." 
Every so often there is speculation that the CCP may, for example, decide to rehabilitate politicians who at various times had unjustly fallen foul of the historical CCP leadership, most often it is those behind the Tiananmen demonstrations are discussed in these terms. However, this is yet to ever happen, since it is painfully difficult for the CCP leadership to allow admission that it ever failed or was wrong about anything - in fact, since Deng's era it is hard to think of anything new beyond the admission that Mao was wrong an (undefined) 30% of the time that constitutes an admission of failing.

Perhaps something like the Tiananmen square demonstrations is still too recent, and too painful an incident for the Chinese authorities to reopen, but if something now as distant and uncontroversial as the CCP's long-abandoned (and not now taken seriously by anyone) claims of biological warfare in the Korean war cannot finally be admitted as fake, then it is hard to ever conceive of what might be admitted as a mistake beyond the generic admissions of failings during the Mao era. This inability to admit failing creates an ever growing number of controversies which the CCP denies even exists, and an ever-growing list of people aware of these controversies. This attempt to create a "country without history" cannot continue forever.

[Picture: A Korean-war-era Chinese Communist propaganda poster]

Friday 17 April 2015

Why is political criticism seen as a personal insult?

This graph from Alex Massie's latest post over at The Spectator says a great deal about the current state of British politics:

At heart, the measure of how likely people are to see criticism of the political party they support as a personal attack on themselves is a measure of the sheer tribalism of their supporters, the degree to which they're political loyalties stem entirely from how they see themselves. As can be seen, no party is free of it, but (with the exception of the mildly Welsh Nationalist Plaid Cymru party) the more fringe the party is in nature, and the more extreme its policies are, the more tribal their supporters are likely to be.

Most prominent on this graph are the Scottish Nationalists, whose grass-roots supporter's ability to see any criticism, however substantiated by fact, as an insult to which they are entitled to respond with insults, will be familiar to anyone who has attempted to follow the development of "The 45" on twitter, and their hounding and jeering of journalists insolent enough to report unfavourable news about their leader.  We see similar behaviour from the self-proclaimed "People's Army" of the UK Independence Party, a nationalist movement in all but name. Whilst the Greens are not a nationalist party, that their support stems much more from their supporter's self-image than from any policies in their manifesto is hardly surprising when you consider that the Green Party's manifesto is in large part an un-costed shopping-list of things it is trendy to be seen to believe in.

To anyone those familiar with Chinese affairs, the phenomenon of people defending politicians who do the indefensible, and responding to criticism with angry invective purely because they have been taught to uncritically identify themselves with those politicians is nothing new. To see it become such a mainstay of British poltics is disappointing, however.

Happily, the likely failure of all of the fringe parties to make any great impact after the next election, and the compromises that will have to be made if they wish to make an impact, are likely to result eventually in a more realistic outlook amongst their supporters. For the time being, though, the supporters of the fringe parties can still engage in magical thinking whereby all that need happen is for Scotland/Wales to become independent, or the UK to leave the EU, or for 'neoliberalism' (whatever that is) to be brought to an end, and all their problems can be solved.

Saturday 7 February 2015

Caribbean Notes

Two weeks ago my wife and I flew back into a typically cold, wet and horrid British January after having spent a wonderful time sailing around the Eastern Caribbean on a much belated honeymoon. Before those warm memories are driven entirely from my head, I thought it best to run off a quick post about some of the places we went to, with the caveat that, having only visited these places for a couple of days each, I cannot possibly do each place full justice:

Cartagena, Colombia
The city was surprisingly nice, especially given that I had expected Colombia to be the roughest stop on our trip due to the security situation there. Whilst heavily armed police were in evidence in some parts of the city, however, the atmosphere was relaxed. There was both no sign of the FARC, nor any sign of concern about them.

The old town of Cartagena is a gem, if one with parts that were over-run by tourists. The gold museum, entry to which is free, was a great place to visit, and the food we had at a restaurant in the less-touristified Getsemani side of town was first rate.

Colon, Panama
Sad to say, Colon itself proved to be a quite forgettable and insalubrious town, and the area near the docks had a particularly threatening feel to it - police on bikes eventually rolled up on us as we wandered the streets near the port area to and told us in no uncertain terms that the area simply wasn't safe to walk around in.

By contrast, Portobelo, 40 minutes by taxi from Colon, was well worth a visit. Black vultures flocked around the fortresses of the old town, and the sun beat down upon the bay where, 400 years before, Sir Francis Drake (who the local museum labeled a "pirate") had been laid to rest. We were slightly concerned to see groups of locals with their faces painted black who were carrying long, heavy bats standing at points along our route to the town collecting money from passing cars, until we learned that they were actually celebrating a local festival and were likely dressed as the Black Christ of Porto Belo. The calamari we ate there was simply excellent.

San Lorenzo, across the Panama canal (the locks of which we also visited at Gatun) from Colon proved to be a ruined Spanish fortress standing in the middle of virgin jungle. Standing on the ramparts of the old fort and looking down on the bay below, where brilliant blue water lapped at the edge of dense jungle, you felt you knew what things would have been like there in the days of the conquistadors.

Whilst Colon itself was nothing special, one of my abiding memories of the whole trip was our leaving of the place - a cloud of black butterflies seemed to flock around the ship and followed us until we were several miles out to sea, a strange and beautiful experience. We caught one final, perplexing sight of land - a flare-gun had been fired in the city for some reason - and then as the flare fell, the sun set and we were off on the next part of our journey.

Montego Bay, Jamaica
It's a shame to say this, but the town of Montego Bay also proved to be more than a tad unmemorable, which combined with all the warnings we heard of robberies there (true or not, I don't know), and the continual and tiresome shouting from touts, put us off from doing too much exploring there. Except for a visit to the civic centre to see the exhibit about Sam Sharpe, who was hung by the British in the main square outside the museum 181 years ago this year, we saw little of the town.

Doctors Cave Beach, on the other hand, was immaculate. The coral reef which we snorkeled on was an exquisite riot of colour, with fish of every size wizzing over the coral. Everyone should swim on a coral reef at least once in their life.

Playa Del Carmen, Mexico
Roughly an hour's drive from Cancun, Playa Del Carmen is definitely part of the the same holiday resort world as it's more famous neighbour, which is not to say it was unpleasant. Actually, after the unsettling atmosphere of Colon and Montego Bay it was quite welcome.

The Mayan ruins at Tulum which we visited (we didn't have enough time to get to Chichen Itza) were spectacular, if seemingly over-run by iguanas. It was odd to think that only half the old buildings there have been explored properly, with many more remaining buried or un-protected in the surrounding mangrove swamp. My advice to anyone who wants to go there is to take your swimming clothes, as there is a beach directly below the main tower that makes an excellent break in the middle of a hot Mexican day.

Havana, Cuba
Having lived in China certain aspects of Cuba were not unfamiliar - the propaganda slogans one saw around Havana, for example. A visitor to the propaganda-packed Museum of The Revolucion (the exhibits of which bear only a tangential relation to history) would have found little to choose between it and some of the museums in Beijing.

Others aspects were, for me, quite new - the generally ruined state of many buildings in the capital was something I had heard about but not expected to be so omni-present. Even the North Korean-style monuments at Plaza De La Revolucion looking somewhat time-worn, with cracked and over-grown curb-sides.

Indeed, with the long queues we saw forming outside bakeries, the talk of shortages of basic necessities (although this may just have been a local version of the powdered milk scam - grifters and beggars were, despite what you may have read elsewhere, prominent on the streets of Havana), my wife was reminded of Poland in the 1980's. I have heard journalists ascribe the state of modern-day Cuba to the embargo, but pretty much every country governed according to Marxist economics has ended up this way (the main square in Wroclaw was almost falling apart by the end of the 80's), so colour me unconvinced.

All this aside Havana was definitely an interesting place to visit, many of the colonial-era buildings had a faded grandeur to them, and the people were very friendly. Sitting in the department store at Plaza Carlos III, which opened in 1997, and seeing the new developments and restorations near the port area, it looked like Cuba is on the way to eventually rejoining the modern world and ditching the insane economic policies of the communist era. The US's re-establishment of relations with Cuba will hopefully greatly hasten this. Whether democratic reforms will also occur is impossible to say, but the Cuban leadership is at least likely to try to copy the example of China, and seek to stay in power by resisting any political reform.

Georgetown, Grand Cayman
Going from the dilapidated worker's paradise to the beating heart of one of the world's biggest tax-havens and playground of the plutocrats was quite a switch. Happily the Cayman Islands (over which the British flag still flies) turned out to the nicest and friendliest place we stopped at in the whole trip. My must-dos from the Cayman Islands include the local craft beers, which were delicious, and any of its seafood establishments.

We left port behind a Royal Navy warship, and started our journey back to Gatwick.

[Picture: A local fishing boat in the San Blas islands off the coast of Panama, where a planned stop was cancelled due to rough seas] 

As seen in Havana