Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Why North Korean tourism is ghoulish and wrong

As someone who has always had a slight yen to see what it is like to live in the world's last remaining Stalinist state, I have sometimes thought about visiting North Korea on tous such as those organised by the Koryo group. The one thing that has stopped me from doing so is the thought that foeign visitors may be used in North Korean propaganda as evidence of foreign support for the regime of the Kims, as well as the potential use of foreign currency earned from tourists in the Kim's various terrorism and drug-dealling enterprises.

A partial confirmation of this idea came in North Korean defector Park Yeon-Mi's live Q&A today in answer to a question about what the ordinary people of North Korea think about the outside world:

 Of course, beyond this, there is the distastefully ghoulish aspect of visiting a country which suffers under such a disasterous system merely for the rarity value, for the bragging rights of saying you saw a totalitarian dictatorship close-up. The nearest comparison would be taking photos at a deadly car-crash merely so you could say you had been there.

Am I wrong about this? At least it seems I am not the only one who thinks so.

[Photo: Tourists chat with local North Koreans. By Norman Harak, via Wiki

Thursday, 16 October 2014

Memories of Serbia

Last year, as my now-wife and I were driving down through the Balkans on our way from Poland to a friend's wedding in Greece, we stopped off in Belgrade for a few days, followed up by a night in Niš. The truly troubled countries of the Balkans - Bosnia and Albania - were saved for our return trip, but Serbia did not strike us as, in the main, a happy country, though it seems churlish to dwell on this given the welcome that many Serbs extended to us whilst we were there.

Most of the damage from the 1999 bombing had been repaired - though there still are ruined buildings in the centre of Belgrade - but there was an understandably suspicious attitude, at least at first, in much of the population to foreigners. Happily Poles are pretty welcome as brother-Slavs, and whatever initial suspicion people had towards us seemed to melt away when they heard we were travelling from Poland (I thought it best not to mention that I was British unless necessary).

One particularly striking memory was walking through the lovely quiet of a Belgrade night-time near the fortress, and looking across the Sava to see the massive Gazprom building with its giant neon sign on the other side. Here, it seemed to say, was an outpost of Russian influence in a country which, judging by the growing willingness of its people to display the EU flag and engage with the rest of Europe, was very slowly slipping away from them.

I claim no real expertise about Serbia or the Balkans as a whole, but still it is not a surprise, given what I saw there last year, to read of Serbian politicians simultaneously feting Putin in what appears to have been a trumped-up excuse to meet him with a parade (the anniversary it is supposed to celebrate does not even fall for four more days), whilst on the other hand talking of how they are irrevocably set on the road to Europe. The Serbs have already been through the grinder of war and want no more of it, though some of their people may have a sentimental attachment to the kind of politics of nationalistic pride amongst Slavs that Putin represents, and which he has used to slice bleeding chunks out of his Georgian and Ukrainian neighbours.

[Picture: The crypt in the church at Topola, final resting place of the Kings of Serbia, where we made a relaxing stop after Belgrade. The wine from the neighbouring vineyard was also well worth sampling] 

Thursday, 2 October 2014

"Caged Birds Think Flying Is An Illness" - The Stand-Off In Hong Kong

And the beat goes on. Having basically provoked these mass demonstrations throughout Hong Kong through their rash bombardment of the peacefully demonstrating students who originally turned out to protest Beijing's failure to allow the genuine democracy in the territory, the Hong Kong authorities have struggled to come up with an effective way of coping with them.

The Hong Kong authorities first bombastically condemned the demonstrations as illegal. As an example of the kind of world these people live in, Regina Ip's comments that the students actions could lead to another Tiananmen (rather than, I don't know, the authorities unleashing lethal military force on unarmed protesters? Like actually happened in Tiananmen in '89?)  is a stunning example.

Then the Hong Kong authorities, perhaps realising they had over-stepped the mark, started to make more conciliatry and moderate statements. One un-named government official was quoted as saying that "Unless there's some chaotic situation, we won't send in riot police ... We hope this doesn't happen . . . We have to deal with it peacefully, even if it lasts weeks or months." The rather obvious plan being here to wait for the demontrations to make themselves unpopular through the disruption they might cause to the city.

Perhaps this was rather too conciliatory for Beijing's tastes, since the mainland authorities have since then made ever more strident warnings against continuining the demonstrations. A People's Daily editorial yesterday which has been compared to the infamous editorial threatening the demonstrators in Tiananmen square, described the consequences of continuing the demonstrations as "unimaginable". The Chinese Foreign ministry has followed suit by warning foreign diplomats to stay away from demonstrations (never mind that this may well be impossible, given the location of the demonstrators). Pictures of baton-rounds and tear-gas being distributed to police have been circulating on Twiter - the good reputation of the Hong Kong police, described by some as "Asia's Finest", has definitely taken something of a knocking over the last week or so.

Responses from ordinary people on the mainland to the demonstrations in Hong Kong have been somewhat unsympathetic, with this moronic cartoon doing the rounds (if widespread bloodshed does occur in Hong Kong, does anyone seriously think it will not be the Chinese authorities who initiate it?). This explanation has much truth in it -

Of course another explanation is that people on the mainland who are sympathetic to what is going on in Hong Kong are liable to be arrested.

Less easy to understand have been the attempts from some in the Sino-blogo-sphere to seemingly down-play the Hong Kong demonstrations.

One example of this is J Michael Cole's attempt to pooh-pooh the Hong Kong demonstrations as somehow a re-run of this year's much smaller Taiwanese demonstrations against the elected-but-unpopular KMT government's trade treaty with the PRC, a story which the world's news media largely ignored. The idea that a minor - if noisy - episode in Taiwan's domestic politics just wasn't as important as a people demonstrating for freedom from a dictatorship doesn't seem to have occured to him.

Another example is Kaiser Kuo's attempt to draw a straight line from pro-democracy demonstrations to anti-mainlander sentiment in Hong kong. I sure hope this wasn't intended as the smear it came off as.

And what is likely to be the outcome of these demonstrations? Predictions of an early exit for Hong Kong Chief Executive CY Leung have been doing the rounds, but I cannot believe that would happen as a direct sop to the demonstrators (not least because that would embolden them). Anyway, the CCP has been making supportive statements about heir picked man in Hong Kong - though their talk of "fully trust[ing]" Leung and being “very satisfied” with him do sound a bit like the kind of statements the board of a Premiership football club would make about an embattled manager right before sacking him. If Leung is going, they'll drop him at the end of his term in 2017 similar to the ousting of Tung Chee-hwa, not now.

Still less likely are any concessions from the CCP to allow meaningful elections in the territory. Whilst the broken promise of free elections is what led to these demonstrations in the first place, the CCP is no more likely to deliver on them now than it was, and seems fixed on its policy come-what-may. Pace  McMurphy, since the CCP decided what it was going to do ages ago - likely as long ago as 2007, conciliatory measures from the pro-democracy camp would do nothing to improve the system on offer, but then again neither are demonstrations - though this cannot be known for sure.

Most likely, sooner or later the demonstrators will quit, hopefully having given the Hong Kong authorities and the Chinese Communist Party the humiliation that they so richly deserve, but likely without having acheived much in the way of meaningful concessions. The pro-dem members of the Legislative Council will veto proposals that do not allow them to even run for election, thus preserving the current system where they may run but not be elected. Hong Kong will go back to business as usual - until the next time.

[Picture: Demonstrators occupying Harcourt Road, Admiralty hold a "candlelight vigil" with mobile phones. By Wiki user Citobun]