Saturday 26 November 2016

Good Riddance To Fidel Castro

There is a certain enthusiasm amongst political extremists for foreign dictators that they would never brook towards a domestic leader who did even half the same things - they allow people to believe that things they are told (and probably, in their heart-of-hearts, know) are impossible or undesirable may be achieved and are desirable because the dictator's censored media says so.

This is why the very first I ever heard of Fidel Castro was a letter from a listener to Radio 4 condemning then-recently-aired criticism of the communist dictator and praising him as a "great statesman" and "anti-imperialist". Later on I was see Cuba under Castro reported again and again by left-leaning journalists from one view point only: the supposedly-wonderful Cuban health care system, the "equality", the deprivation ascribed entirely to the (misguided) US blockade. That we were talking about someone whose rule, in its ultimate nature, varied from, say, Anastasio Somoza or Alfredo Stroessner only in the colour of his rhetoric, could not be seen clearly from these reports.

When Castro visited Nanjing during my time there, security was as tight as it might have been had Kim Jong-Il been visiting, and for the same reasons: vicious dictators have enemies. Castro made a fair number, and not just the "American imperialists" (opposition to whom seemed enough to confer again a red sainthood upon him), but also Cubans upset by his tyranny, and the emigres who left the country before he could add them to the tens of thousands who died as a result of "Revolutionary Justice".

Just like North Korea, Cuba under Castro impoverished its people whilst spending lavishly on a large military armed almost entirely with Soviet equipment. Just like North Korea, Castro was succeeded by a family member. Just like North Korea, Castro ruled for decades without ever allowing the Cuban people a say in whether it should go on. Just like North Korea, when the massive Soviet support on which a supposedly self-sustaining "revolutionary state" was supposed to have been built was withdrawn, massive deprivation and (further) economic collapse was the result.

Foreign adventures of exactly the kind that those who so regularly lavish praise on the former Cuban leader would condemn as "imperialism" occurred at regular intervals - most prominently his dispatch of troops to Angola, which even now wins him praise on the bizarre logic that it was "resistance to Apartheid" (the South African regime supported the opposing side of the Angolan civil war). Some of the same troops, returning to Cuba unwittingly infected with HIV, found themselves being jailed for life in a cruel form of quarantine.

Early last year, just as the reestablishment of relations between Cuba and the US was being announced, I visited Cuba briefly. The poverty and general decrepitude of the country as a whole was palpable. The best that could be said for it was that (as in many dictatorships) petty crime of the kind that plagues the rest of Latin America is kept down.

Only a fool would believe that the US blockade could really be the cause of roughly a third of the buildings in Havana being in a state of collapse - building materials are easily come by - so it was obvious to us that the government that dominates the Cuban economy was to blame. The Cuban health system that wins the country so many plaudits on the left is merely good by regional standards, and does not excuse a dictatorship. The locals that we spoke to all talked of shortages of basic necessities, and of wanting to emigrate.

Fidel Castro's death, reported to day, will no doubt be greeted an outpouring of grief in Cuba. In this, we will see another reflection of the North Korean regime. I'm sure some of it, in a country where Castro is praised in every quarter and where never a word of real criticism of the regime may appear in print, will even be heart-felt.

Outside Cuba, on the other hand, there may also be mourners, but these mourners will have no excuse for not knowing better.

[Picture: Fidel Castro visits another failed Communist dictatorship. Via Wiki]

Wednesday 23 November 2016

Nationalist Nuttiness

On the day when a fascist terrorist who, other than his willingness to actually engage in violence rather than just talk about it, seems to have views not so different to those that have been expressed from time to time by various UKIP officials, is sent to prison for the heinous murder of an MP, one longs for the days when nationalists could simply be laughed at as vainglorious cranks.

 In the Chinese-speaking world you see two particularly bizarre examples of this. The first is found in Taiwan where some on the fringes of the pro-independence movement take the whacky view that Taiwan is actually US territory. The logic of this is highly dubious - essentially that the US was the occupier of Taiwan post-war as the ROC troops who occupied the island acted under US commands, and as occupier the rights to the territory of Taiwan should have fallen to it after peace was made with Japan. Regardless of the validity of the argument, however, the real head-scratcher here is the idea that this advances Taiwanese independence - how the Taiwanese road to independence goes via converting Taiwan into a US colony against the wishes of both the Taiwanese and the US has never really been clear to me, but a very few on the pan-green side still seem to believe it quite fervently.

The second is one that I only heard of today: the idea that Hong Kong's New Territories were "stolen" by the PRC advocated by some on the Localist side in Hong Kong, including, apparently, Yau Wai-ching - she of Oathgate fame. Again, the logic here is dubious in the extreme - as expressed in the letter published in the Liberty Times (apparently published accidentally based on an early draft), the argument appears to be that the New Territories became part of the territory of Hong Kong as they were leased by the Qing Empire to the UK, and therefore the UK did not have the right to permanently transfer them to the PRC but instead the ROC should have inherited them. Again, quite how this argument helps the cause that Yau represents is not entirely clear.

 Funny as the above are to think of, though, they do represent examples of the madness that lies at the heart of the nationalism now assailing many democratic (or, like Hong Kong, not-so-democratic) societies. People, once they buy into nationalism (taking here George Orwell's broad definition of the term) are willing to embrace the most facile nonsense so long as they understand that it is good for the "nation" with which they identify. Some Trump supporters believe that Obama was born in Kenya based on essentially no evidence. People in the Scottish nationalist movement have convinced themselves that MI5 rigged the independence referendum and is hiding Scotland's oil wealth. Pro-Brexit conspiracy theories were too numerous to count.

 Whilst conspiracy theories like these have always abounded, modern social media seems to practically weaponise them and enable their dispersion far and wide, and occasionally people act on the extremism and suspicion they engender.

Wednesday 9 November 2016

What the inconceivable looks like

Yesterday I described a Trump win as inconceivable. Today it is of course a reality. Donald Trump has won, getting only slightly more votes than Mitt Romney did in 2012 and (according to the BBC website right now, though the final count is not yet in) slightly less than Hillary Clinton managed. It seems that too many democrat voters were just unable to make the grown-up choice of the least-worst option.

I heard Anne Applebaum talking on BBC Radio 4 this morning, interspersed with Donald Trump's acceptance speech, in near apocalyptic terms. "This is the end of NATO", we were told (in as many words), the "end of a world ruled by law".

Personally, as I am still somewhat punch-drunk from the Brexit result, I did not find this result quite so shocking as I did the result of the referendum on EU membership, which, in the words of a fellow Remainer, felt "like a death in the family" for days afterwards. That does not mean I do not think it is bad.

Whilst I think there is at least some scope to hope that Trump will be moderated by his advisers, that he may be controlled by the US constitution, and that much of what he said on the campaign trail may not have been meant sincerely, he is clearly unqualified for his post either by experience or temperament. His tendency to over-react is well known. His complete lack of morals is public knowledge.

A Trump win makes it more likely that Germany and France will have to work together to develop a replacement for NATO. Trump has clearly signalled that a US under his leadership will not be a reliable ally. Eastern Europe in general and Ukraine in particular may find themselves threatened or even attacked by Russia without US assistance.

This clubbing together of European states will inevitably have a knock-on effect on Brexit, making an easy deal for the UK less likely. Similarly, Trump has taken a hard line against international free trade deals, so it is hard to see Brexiteer's plans for free trade deals coming to much in a world that is turning towards isolationism, even if Trump's team has also expressed interest in a deal with the UK.

A Trump win makes a PRC threat against Taiwan, or even outright aggression, much more likely. Of course the likelihood of something like this was always going to rise over the next decade or so regardless of who sat in the White House, simply as a result of Chinese defence spending approaching, and in due course surpassing, that of the United States, but Trump's proclamations about not coming to the aid of supposedly back-sliding allies who don't pay their fair share makes this more likely still. Barring a (highly unlikely) sudden acquisition of nuclear weapons it is hard to see what the Taiwanese can do to counter this.

A Trump win brings into horrifying focus all those things that Obama was supposed to fix about the Bush years but has not yet done so. Torture was never properly outlawed, and so may be implemented anew by a president who has stated publicly that he wishes to bring it back. The prison in Guantanamo Bay has not been closed, and so remains open to receive new inmates sent there by a president who has said that he wants to "load it up with bad dudes".

Above all a Trump win damages the image of democracy itself. If people can make such an obvious bad decision, then where does this leave democracy's claim to being the best system of government? This. at least, will be the rhetoric coming from government-controlled media in China and elsewhere as the Trump presidency unfolds.

Personally I take consolation in simply remembering the democracy is not the best system, it is merely "the worst form of Government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time." The people of the US will survive to make a different, better choice some point in the future.

Tuesday 8 November 2016

US elections

As a Brit I have long felt something slightly demeaning about the way we in the UK concentrate so much on the outcome of US election when Americans seemingly care so little about elections beyond their borders. All the same their elections undeniably affect us in a way that our elections do not affect them.

This time round, I find myself surprised to find that whilst the election is close, and whilst I do know quite a few right-leaning Americans, I do not have a single American acquaintance who is voting for Donald Trump. I know people who voted for Bush, McCain, and Romney, but not a single Trump voter. Despite my efforts to try not to fall into an echo-chamber where only your own views are repeated back to you, one has shaped itself around me anyway by simple virtue of the background of my friends in the US (well-travelled, well-educated people).

Therefore, whilst I get why someone would hesitate before voting for Hillary Clinton, I honestly have no idea why anyone would vote for Trump. I could hazard any number of guesses as to why people might vote for a candidate who, viewed from afar, looks like a disaster waiting to happen, but I really don't know why they would do and no amount of listening and watching radio and television programs on this subject has left me that much wiser.

I doubt very much that anyone will be swayed much by my opinion on this, but the clear, pragmatic choice is a vote for Hillary Clinton. She is the best qualified, and her policies are moderate in the extreme.

The idea seems to have gained traction in both the US and other countries that a vote is about who you are, candidates try to sell themselves as the "hope" candidates in a "change" election. This is foolish. Voting is not about making you feel good about yourself, it's a choice much as many other choices you make in life where you are simply trying to choose the least-worst option. A failure to do this simply because you do not feel particularly inspired by a candidate or party is a failure to behave like an adult.

By contrast, a win for Trump is simply inconceivable. I cannot imagine what the world will look like if he wins but it will undoubtedly be worse.

Friday 4 November 2016

Xi Jinping becomes a "core leader"

Somewhat missed amongst the recent happenings in the UK and the US was the elevation of Xi Jinping, President of the People's Republic of China and head of the Chinese Communist Party, to the status of "core leader". Whilst some have be given to down-playing this, I think it significant in at least two ways.

Firstly, this signals a definite and final break with the Hu/Wen model of a dual leadership team of near-equals. There is absolutely no question now that Li Keqiang (the Chinese premier) is subordinate to Xi Jinping in a way that Wen Jiabao was not subordinate to Hu Jintao. Xi Jinping is the paramount leader of China and no talk from the CCP about how collective leadership still “must always be followed" can change the fact that having declared Xi to be a core leader on a par with Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping his word will be final.

The second significant aspect of this is that it further brings into question whether Xi will step down in 2022. Until relatively recently it was assumed amongst China watchers that the convention set by Hu/Wen of leadership teams serving ten-year terms together and then being replaced by the next generation of leadership would continue into the future. Whilst there was no real reason to believe this, and I myself did not believe it would carry on like this in a system with no checks and balances preventing the leadership simply arrogating power to themselves, Xi has now raised himself above such conventions and placed himself on a par with leaders who ruled China for decades. Moreover the generation of CCP leadership that might have replaced him is now significantly thinned and cowed as a result of Xi's "anti-corruption" campaign.

Back in the Hu/Wen years, one particularly silly argument you sometimes saw put forward by supporters of the CCP as to why they did not believe that China was a dictatorship was that China did not have a single dictator in charge at the top. Whatever validity this argument had is now completely wiped out. China now very clearly has a dictator - Xi Jinping - and there is now little preventing Xi staying on for another five, ten or even more years and becoming a Chinese Brezhnev.