Tuesday 31 October 2017

Daniel A. Bell: Messages from an alternate reality

Daniel A. Bell has written a deliciously deluded piece in the Financial Times explaining that, even though China’s leadership appears to be selected through an opaque process of power-games and intrigue, instead it’s a perfect meritocracy. In fact, the reason why the process is so secretive is to protect the hurt feelings of anyone who fails.

No, really:

He asked me how we select candidates in academia. I replied that we have a committee that aims to select the best candidates, and we deliberate among ourselves. He then asked if the deliberations are open. That would not be fair to the candidates who are not selected, I said. He smiled and said: “The same goes for us.”
So we should just accept that a lack of transparency is an inevitable cost of any organisation that aims to select the best candidates. It is true not just of the Chinese Communist party and academia, but also of major investment banks or the Catholic Church. That is not to say we should not hope for more transparency in the Chinese system. … full transparency is unlikely and would be unfair to the “losers”.

What’s interesting here is the claim that Daniel Bell does not, any more, seem to be making – that today’s Chinese government is, or should be, “Confucian”, something that he has claimed in the past more than once. This is not surprising as the Confucian-esque language of previous years (e.g., the touting of “Harmony” under Hu/Wen) has been dropped in favour of a governing style much more reminiscent of the Deng Xiaoping era.

Bell has been described in the past (I can't find the quote) as writing as if about an alternate, and infinitely preferable reality in which China's rulers are exactly the philosopher-kings that they like to portray themselves as. However, it seems even Bell's reality sometimes conforms to our own, in which, far from being an entirely meritocratic organisation made up of disinterested Confucian scholars, the party is little more than a route to influence and power, the membership of which cannot even be bothered to pay their party dues.

Tuesday 24 October 2017

The bitter farce of Brexit

Two sections of this frankly-frightening piece on the state of modern British politics in today's Times caught my attention.

The first is this:

At this point no-one who has been paying attention can possibly be under the illusion that Brexit will lead to immediate prosperity, and most sensible observers cannot see a way that it will likely result in one in the long term either. However to admit out loud that Brexit will be a disaster is anathema in a world where the public have been lied to and still believes the lies they were told. The ministers who are not true believers remain in their posts either out of a sense of duty, or  in the blind hope that something will turn up to either prevent Brexit or rescue us from its consequences.

The second section is this:

Theresa May likely never believed in Brexit, and was probably being honest when she spoke out against it before the referendum. Yet she first embraced it, then saw that it could not be done, and then her gamble in the election brought ruin upon her. She now stays in post even though the support she has within her government comes only from those who see no viable alternative and she herself seems to have no confidence at all in her own leadership.

As the piece also points out, the situation on the opposition benches is little different. Many members of Jeremy Corbyn's team are privately in violent disagreement with him and staying in place mainly out of ambition or the hope that one day they will rescue their party from him.

We now seem trapped, unable to go back to where we were before the 23rd of June, 2016, and unable to go forward from where we are either. Neither the government nor the opposition has any clear plan of what to do, only who to blame (the government or the EU). Only the public themselves could hope to break this deadlock, but though there are signs of a possible shift in public opinion (let us put it no more strongly than that) it would have to transform into a tidal-wave of protest to prevent the economic disaster predicted by the OECD.

[Picture: a view of the city of London under an ominously red sky, taken from the Shard during the strange weather we had on Monday last week]

Saturday 21 October 2017

Why was Bo Xilai's wife given a Bogu(s) name?

Interesting tid-bit from a report in this week's Foreign Policy on the rise of Xi Jinping:

I and other observers of China affairs had wondered about this: why was Bo Xilai's wife, Gu Kailai, being called "Bogu Kailai" (or other versions of this), when in China (and in all Chinese-speaking communities that I can think of) the tradition is for the wife not to change her name on marriage. There was speculation that this was due to a desire to link Gu (sentenced to life in prison for the murder of Neil Heywood, an apparent fly-by-night unknown in the expat community) closer to Bo in propaganda to further dirty them both by association. Others asked if this was some new (or revived) tradition, imported perhaps from Taiwan or somewhere else overseas?

This explanation makes much more sense: it was a simple typo that was picked up and parroted by others out of fear of missing some condemnatory nuance of the story. From there it was repeated in the foreign press who either knew no better or, again, thought it must mean something or be some new tradition.

This kind of incident is yet another reminder just how little we know of the inner workings of the CCP, and how much is pure guess-work.

Friday 13 October 2017

Why I (Still) Blog

Ten years ago today I sat down in my room in the halls at Queen Mary, University of London, where I was then doing my master's, and wrote the first post on this blog. There were a lot of things that inspired me to start blogging, but the biggest of them was Andrew Sullivan's old blog.

Sullivan, considered by many to be one of the grandfathers of the blogosphere, made his final post back in 2015, after 15 years of steady posting, day-in, day-out. I'd been a follower since a very good friend of mine first recommended his stream of often-wrong always-interesting commentary to me. The proudest moments that this little blog has had is the moments when I was quoted over at his place, which was happily more than once. Whilst Sullivan's writings could sometimes be mawkish and over-sharing, they were normally well-informed, honest, and even-handed, a style I have done my best to emulate in my own fashion.

At the same time, the demise of The Dish, perhaps the biggest single-author-centred blog out there, and the failure of any other blogger to take its place, has caused me to reconsider whether there might be any truth in the claims that blogging (and particularly China blogging) is "dead" or at least "slowly asphyxiating". It's certainly true that the commenting and posting on many China blogs is much less lively than it used to be, but there's still plenty of blogs going strong. Whilst the idea that many people seemed to have in the early years of the last decade of building careers in writing through their blogs mostly seems to have come to nothing, blogging as a past-time and means of communication seems to still be in a reasonably healthy condition. Indeed, during my occasional spates of regular posting in recent years this blog received more visits than at any time in the "golden years" of blogging, including the times when it received links from high-traffic sites like Andrew Sullivan's.

Blogging as a way of making a living, though, despite Andrew Sullivan's regular protests that his blog made a healthy profit, seems to have never come to be. It is very clear that, had Sullivan ever made enough money from his blog to hire more staff, he and his co-editors would not have suffered the stress-induced-burnout that eventually brought an end to his career. This, however is not a problem restricted to blogging in particular but one which afflicts the creative industry as a whole - just how do you make a living doing something when so many people are doing it for free?

The assertion that Twitter and Facebook are better conduits for communication than blogging is often made. This is true to the extent that Twitter is a great aggregator of links and bon mots and I am a compulsive user of it. Facebook is a very immediate and personal means of communication with friends and family and useful as such. But there is nothing that matches the immediacy of blogging.

When, for example, Paul Campos, a law professor in Colorado, wanted to publicise the scandal of US law students going into substantial debt in the expectation of high-paying jobs that the vast majority of them never received he simply set up a blog directed to doing so. The effect his blog had was undeniable. No Twitter account or Facebook page could have had the same effect, because neither allows an audience of people who are otherwise strangers to be assembled so quickly over a single topic.

And so I still blog, not simply to speak to people I know or who already agree with me (and may even be curated via an algorithm) but to the world in general.

Sunday 1 October 2017

Catalonia, Taiwan, Scotland, Crimea.

I don't know much about Catalonia. I've never been there and I know only a few people from there, all of whom oppose Catalan independence (and therefore are unlikely to be representative sample).

I have, however, lived in Taiwan, a de facto independent state where most people (including the premier) generally prefer the status quo. This position is pragmatic given the threat of war (and not a war which the Taiwanese would launch or could really be blamed for) if de jure independence were declared or even attempted, and given that at this point Taiwanese independence, absent international recognition that will never come, means little except changing the names and flags on government buildings. I personally find this pragmatism quite admirable.

In addition no British person can have avoided having experience over the past three years of the extreme political environments that referendums seem to give birth to, and how little seems to actually be decided by them regardless of their result. Simply voting for independence, either from a supra-national body like the EU, or from a country like Spain, achieves little by itself, and changes no-one's mind.

Three years on from the referendum on Scottish independence the SNP behave virtually as if it never happened, and the polls locked around the 55%-45% split against independence. More than a year on from the EU referendum the UK is still in the EU with no idea what will come next, nor any sign that opinion has moved on from the virtual 50/50 split on leaving or staying in.

The "joyous", "civic" atmosphere that the respective supporters of Scottish independence and Brexit thought they would create through their campaigns proved nothing more than a mirage, instead the reality was unpleasant and at times verged on fanatical. The simple fix to all problems people imagined might come from severing vital relationships and smashing up what has taken generations to build has proved a fantasy. 

I doubt whether Catalonia will prove any different in this regard. Indeed, even if the advocates of Catalan independence get what they want they will still have the problems that come from the illegality of the means they have chosen to achieve it. An independence referendum followed by a unilateral declaration of independence is nowhere near as bad as invasion followed by annexation, but the isolation of the Crimea following its sham referendum under Russian military occupation shows what happens when something which may have had popular support is achieved illegally.

Taiwan shows the virtues of leaving unanswerable question until later, of muddling through as best one can, even if this is often out of there being no other option. People both in Catalonia and in the UK could learn from this.