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. 

Thursday, 13 July 2017

Liu Xiaobo: A man with no enemies

Liu Xiaobo was a man with no enemies. The 'crime' he was jailed for was co-writing and circulating a charter asking for the things that most people in developed countries regard as the bare minimums of a civilised society: a free press, free elections, an independent judiciary. Yet today he is dead, having died of an illness that he might have had every chance of avoiding or overcoming had he not been jailed by a brutal regime that feared what he had to say.

In coming days you will hear some of the usual people saying some of the usual things that apologists for the Chinese Communist Party say about its critics - that Liu Xiaobo was a foreign agent, that had he not associated with "evil foreign forces" he would be free today. This is nonsense. Others who have had no contact at all with foreign human rights organisations have been jailed by the CCP authorities for the same 'crime' of 'subversion', where their 'crime' consisted only of speaking their minds in a public forum.  Guo Quan, a former Nanjing University professor of history, who also campaigned for democracy, was jailed for the same 'crime' of 'subversion' for 10 years, with no-one ever accusing him of foreign links.

Those with suspicious minds might suspect that foul play, or at least malicious neglect, were factors in Liu's death. This suspicion can only be heightened by the unconfirmed report that Bo Xilai has also recently been released for treatment for the same disease (liver cancer) that killed Liu. Without evidence such speculation is pointless conspiracy-theory-making. The independent post-mortem that might clear-up such speculation will never happen, even if Liu's family want it to be done which is uncertain.

Still, I find it hard not to feel angry about this. I am not the man who said this:
 "Hatred can rot away at a person's intelligence and conscience. Enemy mentality will poison the spirit of a nation, incite cruel mortal struggles, destroy a society's tolerance and humanity, and hinder a nation's progress toward freedom and democracy. That is why I hope to be able to transcend my personal experiences as I look upon our nation's development and social change, to counter the regime's hostility with utmost goodwill, and to dispel hatred with love."

Liu Xiaobo must never be forgotten, his wife Liu Xia should be freed from the restrictions she was placed under now. Keeping these things in mind is the best way of honouring Liu Xiaobo's memory.

Friday, 7 July 2017

Hong Kong & Shenzhen Again



I spent last week on a whistle-stop business visit to Hong Kong and Shenzhen, my first real visit to the mainland since 2014 and to Hong Kong since 2015.

Brief notes:
  • Not a single person I spoke to in Hong Kong expressed any excitement or interest in the celebration ceremonies for the 20th anniversary of the hand-over of Hong Kong to the PRC. At most they expressed weariness about the likely shut-down of the city centre and expected a repeat of the inconvenience they suffered during the visit of Zhang Dejiang last year, which included being locked in their office buildings for hours either side of his passing through.
  • As much as I deprecate people moaning about "gentrification", the wave of change sweeping through Kowloon has undeniably removed something special from the area, though Mong Kok is still itself.
  • The banners displayed everywhere I went on the mainland touting "socialism" and (amongst Xi Jinping's 12 virtues) "democracy" were, for me, stunning. Having lived in the China of Hu Jintao, where communism was wisely down-played, and "Western" democracy was something to be denounced (whilst at the same time subtly claiming, typically with some hand-waving about Confucianism, that China under the CCP is a democracy), it was a shock to see both communism and democracy being touted in official propaganda. I can't help but think that this is only likely to drive people against the CCP regime by rubbing the fact that neither democracy nor socialism currently exist in mainland China in their faces, but then what do I know?
Obviously it was a short visit, but I think the last point here is probably the most significant. The CCP under Xi Jinping is abandoning the subtle style of previous years and instead heightening the contradictions of their rule.

[Picture: the "24-characters of core values of socialism", including (roughly translated) prosperity, democracy, civilisation, harmony, freedom, peace, equality, justice, rule of law, patriotism, dedication, honesty, and fraternity]

Wednesday, 14 June 2017

North Korean tourism is ghoulish and wrong, part 2


I've written before about why I think visiting North Korea as a tourist is wrong, the equivalent of ghoulish on-lookers oggling a deadly car-crash. One thing I didn't mention there was the possibility of becoming a hostage of the Kim's regime, held as a pawn in North Korea's diplomatic game.

The fate of Otto Warmbier should be a warning to everyone considering visiting the DPRK as a tourist that this is indeed a possibility. By all accounts Otto Warmbier did nothing really wrong - taking a poster,apparently as a memento, in an apparent act of care-free thoughtlessness than in any other country in the world would not result in any serious sanction. Instead he is now being returned to his family in a coma, explained by the North Korean regime as the result of either taking a sleeping pill or botulism he had suffered whilst serving his 15-year sentence of hard labour for “hostile acts against the state.”

The conclusion of all this is quite obvious: don't go to North Korea. The kind of thing that happened to Otto Warmbier could happen to anyone else, and once you have entered into the Kim regime's clutches you may not leave alive.

[Picture: a border guard at Sunan airport, North Korea. Via Wiki]

Tuesday, 13 June 2017

Panama switches recognition to China

China's successful diplomatic coup, announced today, that Panama will sever relations with Taiwan (officially the Republic of China) and establish them with China, has already led to Taiwan breaking off relations with Panama to "preserve its national dignity".

China has progressively squeezed the Taiwanese out of every forum it possibly could, and cutting off the last official diplomatic relations it still maintains appears to be the last phase of this decades-long process. Following the ending of a "diplomatic truce" during the Ma presidency, and the severing of relations with the Gambia and Sao Tome and Principe, Taiwan's 23 million people now enjoy full diplomatic relations with only twenty other states, of which the largest in terms of population is probably the land-locked African state of Burkina Faso.

One thing the PRC leadership does not seem to have asked itself is whether this is an entirely self-defeating move. By progressively stripping the Republic of China of it's last remaining vestiges of legitimacy on the international stage, it makes the point again to the Taiwanese people that clinging to it has little value. Even were the Chinese nationalist KMT to again win the presidency, whilst China's communist party leadership might stop attempting to undermine Taiwan's diplomatic relations, they would not be likely to allow Taiwan's leaders to establish new diplomatic relations with anyone - this is therefore a one-way process in which the Taiwanese essentially have little to gain.

[Picture: The flag of Panama flies on a hot day at Gatun locks, taken on a stop there during my honeymoon in 2015]

Monday, 12 June 2017

Things that are and are not true about a Tory-DUP coalition deal

So, it seems that as of writing the coalition deal with the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) that Theresa May wishes to conclude in order to stay in government is still up in the air, however much has already been written about its possible effect on the Northern Irish peace process and UK political scene in general. Some of it, though, seems particularly dubious, and potentially dangerous (or at least deeply misleading) if taken seriously. Let's take the common points in turn:

1) The DUP is linked to terrorist organisations and therefore a coalition deal with them is unconscionable.

Some members of the DUP have informal, non-official links to Loyalist paramilitaries, DUP officials certainly has "winked" at Loyalist paramilitaries by, for example, thanking their friends in certain strongly-loyalist neighbourhoods, as is noted by the BBC here. At the same time officially they do not accept endorsements from paramilitaries and condemn the attacks that Loyalist paramilitaries have carried out.

The connection between the DUP and the Loyalists paramilitaries is therefore not even nearly the kind of official relationship that exists between the Provisional IRA and Sinn Fein. DUP politicians do not praise the UVF or the UDA the way Sinn Fein politicians do the IRA. DUP politicians do not accept the endorsement of former "Prisoners of War" (that is, men jailed for acts of heroism like, say, leaving a bomb with a timer set in a busy highstreet, or kidnapping and murdering a single mother of ten) as Sinn Fein do.

The idea that the DUP is simply the protestant, Loyalist mirror-image of Sinn Fein, and that a deal with them is just as unacceptable as a deal with Sinn Fein would be, does not hold water.

2) A deal with the DUP would be illegal under the Good Friday Agreement since that requires that the Westminster government be neutral in Northern Irish affairs.

As the legal comentator David Allen Green pointed out, this is clearly a political issue on which no court would pass judgement even if a breach of the agreement could be clearly identified (which it hasn't been). This hasn't stopped Sinn Fein from making this claim, however.

There is plenty of reason, though, for being highly dubious about Sinn Fein's claim. The biggest one from my point of view is that when the Good Friday Agreement was concluded the government of the time was in what amounted to an informal coalition with a Northern Irish party  (SDLP's MPs take the Labour party whip), and was for years after that, and neither Sinn Fein nor any other Northern Irish party thought this worth objecting to or impacted on the UK government's neutrality.

Moreover, taking Sinn Fein's stance on this at face-value, it would seem to preclude them ever being involved in the government in Dublin (which has a similar role under the Good Friday Agreement), which given their efforts to take power there cannot possibly be their position. 

3) The DUP's positions on abortion and gay rights put them beyond the pale in modern British politics.

The DUP's position on abortion is the same as that of the SDLP (and for that matter, Sinn Fein). As has already been noted above, the Labour party were in what amounted to a coalition with the SDLP for years and this point was never raised. Perhaps it should have been?

The DUP's position on gay rights is just as reprehensible, in my view, as its position on abortion, but again Labour did not see this as a barrier when they approached the DUP to form a coalition in 2010.

Tu quoque arguments are tiresome and illogical, but if you had to judge what is acceptable in British politics by past form, there is no reason to believe that a deal with the DUP is unacceptable simply because of their positions on gay rights and abortion. The real point of contention should be whether the DUP demands an erosion of gay rights and abortion rights in return for the coalition deal, and it is here that we should be wary.

4) This endangers the Peace Process at a serious juncture.


This is, I think, the biggest and best reason to object to a coalition with the DUP. Power-sharing in Northern Ireland has collapsed after the last Northern Irish elections and talks are currently ongoing to re-start it. Why would anyone wish to upset the balance of these talks?

The problem here is that for the UK government to be absent from these talks would also endanger them, and without this deal there cannot be a stable UK government - instead, if no deal were made and the government lost a no-confidence vote, there would be another election which is no more likely to return a majority government than the last one. The Tory-DUP deal represents the only viable deal that is ever likely to happen.

As I said above, we should be very wary of allowing the Conservatives to make a deal that would make unacceptable concessions. The idea of allowing marches to go ahead again, after they repeatedly led to violent stand-offs, in return for a coalition deal, cannot be given credence. Ruth Davidson is entirely correct to hint that she and her new batch of Scottish Conservative MPs will not tolerate an erosion of LGBTI rights in the UK as a result of this deal.

There are indeed reasons to be positive about a deal with the DUP. The DUP is committed to not accepting any special status vis-à-vis the EU for Northern Ireland, and to not accepting a return to a "Hard Border" there, commitments which, taken together, would seem to preclude a Hard Brexit.

[Picture: DUP founder Ian Paisley - more than any single man except perhaps Gerry Adams, to blame for the Troubles carrying on for as long as they did. Via Wiki]

Sunday, 11 June 2017

This extraordinary result

I think it was the smiles on their faces that gave the game away a bit: when David Dimbley (pictured above) and his co-presenters opened the BBC election night results special they all had a bit of a jaunty aspect to them, as though they already knew what the exit poll said and were looking forward to the shock it was going to give us.

And what a shock! Not just the polling of the previous year or more, but the results of the local elections less than two months before the result, all pointed to a not-undeserved hammering for Jeremy Corbyn's Labour party. Even the tightening in the polls in the two weeks before the election had pointed only to a marginally-less-dire-but-still-dire result for Corbyn's Labour.

On my way to the polling station at my local church hall I was impressed only by the relatively low apparent turn-out, though I did remark on the tellers for Labour at each of the polling stations I had passed - they had been thin on the ground at the previous election where I had been a teller. I put my cross next to the Liberal Democrat's name (my first time not voting Tory in a general election), safe in the knowledge that the Conservatives would sweep not only my constituency (which they did, albeit by a reduced majority) but also most of the country.

Instead, when I switched on my television at 9.55pm, expecting to see the inevitable Tory victory and to be in bed before 11, with not a small measure of satisfaction I saw Mrs. May stunningly denied the majority that she seemed to have thought would be hers by default. May, whose leadership victory I had cautiously welcomed as the only viable option in the aftermath of Brexit, and who had then betrayed every moderate conservative in the country by hitching her star to the xenophobic poison of Hard Brexit, had been brought low.

Not only that, but Jeremy Corbyn had been denied victory. From the point of view of anyone for whom a Corbyn victory would have been a disaster, but for whom also Hard Brexit would be a disaster, this was the best possible result.

It got even better as the Scottish results became apparent: Nicola Sturgeon's arrogance in pressing for another referendum on Scottish independence had back-fired spectacularly. Not only did the Scottish Conservatives under the leadership of excellent Ruth Davidson capture a dozen Scottish seats, but also Kezia Dugdale's Scottish Labour had captured another seven, and the Liberal Democrats had also picked up a couple. The "majority for independence" that we had been told existed in Scotland was obviously a phantom.

The icing on the cake was that UKIP, which at one point threatened both Labour in the north of England and the Conservatives in the South, had imploded, taking bare percentage-points of the vote. The receding of the UKIP tide had raised the vote-share of the two main parties to heights not seen in decades, and puts an end to our supposedly "fragmented" politics.

Since the results became known we have been told that the Conservatives have either made a deal with, or are on the cusp of making a deal with, the Democratic Unionist Party to remain in power. This is a disreputable deal which can only rebound on Theresa May and which sensible Tory MPs will try to distance themselves from. Whilst not as closely related to paramilitary violence as Corbyn's friends in Sinn Fein (who announced - in what Corbyn must feel is a great act of ingratitude - that they would not support a Labour government) the DUP's links to Loyalist paramilitaries are both informal and undeniable, and their endorsement by paramilitary organisations was only grudgingly disavowed.

This coalition cannot last long, nor can the leadership of Theresa May. At the same time the Hard Brexit this election had been called to empower has been left without support opening a narrow window of opportunity to change course. The "Saboteurs" that the Daily Mail had gleefully called to be "crushed" will have their say. At last, there is a bit of hope.

As for the person who I did not wish to win, but whose performance during the campaign undoubtedly did more than perhaps anyone's efforts (apart from Theresa May's, obviously)? Well, I still do not support Jeremy Corbyn, do not agree with his policies, think him a weak leader surrounded by incompetents, think his views on the EU are both dishonest and disastrous, but were he to renounce Brexit tomorrow I would certainly give the idea of voting for his party some consideration.

Finally: I was obviously wrong, many commenters were obviously wrong, about what the outcome of this election would be. From now on I doubt I will think of the polls as much more than slight indicators of what the final result will be, since it is now obvious that people can and will change their minds about who to vote for in large numbers in the weeks leading up to an election.

Wednesday, 19 April 2017

The Brexit Election

One of the curious things about the UK's Brexit syndrome is the way in which at every turn  the things that were supposed to halt it or at least moderate it have been blown through without doing much to affect it, at least thus-far.

Firstly it was the people themselves who were supposed to vote in their own self-interest against a proposition that threatened such potential economic harm. Instead they voted, narrowly, to take the risk of leaving the European Union without any obvious commensurate gain.

Then it was hoped that the selection of a former Remain-supporting minister as Prime Minister might moderate the outcome. Instead Mrs May is pursuing what appears to be a Hard Brexit, with departure from the single market and the customs union on the cards.

Then, following a court result (one based on what I believe to be dubious reasoning), the government was forced to first get the consent of parliament before beginning the process of leaving the EU. Rather than the result being a watered-down Brexit plan, the government were handed a blank cheque by a stupendously supine parliament, with the opposition simply rolling over under Jeremy Corbyn's incompetent leadership.

Now, the one thing which we had been told wouldn't happen, but which many on the Remain camp believed last year might yet help avoid a Hard Brexit, is going to happen. Granted, it's not the second referendum some hoped for, but it's the next best thing - a general election. It is hard to believe this is so, but almost no-one really believes that this election will result in Brexit being called off. Even in the supremely unlikely event of Corbyn's Labour defeating the Conservatives, Brexit will still go ahead on what appears to be very similar lines to those proposed by the government.

At best what people now hope is that, with a larger majority, Mrs May will be better placed to make a compromise deal with the EU, and avoid a disastrous "no deal" scenario. This presumes that Mrs May actually wants to compromise, and that the new influx of MPs won't be dominated by Brexit zealots. Both are dubious assumptions.

For myself, my membership of the Conservatives expired last October - I could not in good conscience renew it after Mrs May's call for leaving the single market (which, with its four freedoms, was ultimately the only part of our EU membership that I actually cared about). In every election in which I have been able to cast a vote I have voted for the Conservative party, but I will not be able to do so in next month's local elections or in June's general election.

[Picture: some EU produce from here in Germany - I am presently enjoying a Frohliche Ostern in Cleves - which I intend to import back into the UK on my return!]