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!]

Monday, 5 December 2016

What fishing on the Thames can tell you about Brexit in the courts

One of the depressing things about constitutional law, particularly in the United States, is the regularity with which people decide their position on a matter of law based solely on whatever is most convenient for their political beliefs at that moment. The number of people who say "this is constitutional, even if I wish it weren't" or conversely "this is unconstitutional, even though I wish it were" when confronted with a given dispute is vanishingly small.

This is the case even when people have previously stated essentially the opposite position in a case. There was much derision about the position of the US supreme court in Heller from people who saw the US court essentially making up the law on the spot without any explicit wording in the US constitution on which to base their view, but the same people are often vigorous defenders of the court's reasoning in Roe v Wade where arguably the same thing was done.

For this reason, I want to be clear that whilst I am still firmly in the Remain camp, I am of the view that the UK government should win the appeal currently being heard in the UK Supreme Court. I am very much persuaded by the reasoning put forward by more qualified people than I on this score (see, e.g., here, for one anonymous-but-learned view).

In a simplified version, according to my understanding, you might imagine what might happen if the UK signed a treaty with Timbuktoo granting its citizens the right to visit the UK for the purposes of fishing on the Thames.

The treaty might go into great detail about the rods and lures that might be used, the dates on which fishing could be done, and other terms and conditions which might be regularly altered, but to implement this into UK law a simple parliamentary act saying "All rights arising from time-to-time as a result of the Anglo-Timbuktoo agreement shall be available in the UK" is all that is required. Such legislation would be advantageous as it would not require amending every time the treaty itself was amended, but would simply automatically convey every addition or removal from the treaty directly into UK law.

After a while, though, English fishermen tire of the citizens of Timbuktoo hogging all the best fishing spots. A campaign is started in the newspapers in which the xenophobic bogeyman of the Timbuktoo fisher robbing British people of their weekend enjoyment is raised. A hard-fought, but advisory, referendum is held delivering a 52% majority for ending the treaty. The government then tries to withdraw from the treaty by issuing notice under an exit clause of the agreement.

People might be upset that their travel plans to Henley had been upset, that their investment in fishing tackle and hotel rooms had gone to waste, but there would be no question that no further legislation was needed in these circumstances. It would be very clear that the parliamentary act enacted the whole of the treaty, including the exit clause, into UK law, and that furthermore the act itself clearly envisaged that rights under the treaty might be removed as a result of its amendment and operation. The government cannot be accused of acting unreasonably as the referendum clearly shows a reasonable grounds to act.

This, according to my understanding, is effectively the situation in the present Brexit litigation: whilst rights under EU law will inevitably be lost, this is simply a result of how the European Communities Act 1972 works. The ECA automatically conveys changes in EU law, including that law ceasing to apply entirely to the UK, directly into UK law. By issuing notice under Article 50, the UK government is simply exercising its constitutional role as the maker and breaker of international treaties, and no further parliamentary legislation is needed to give this effect as the ECA 1972 already does this.

[Picture: Fishermen and their Boats at Millbank on the Thames. Via Wiki]

Saturday, 3 December 2016

The Tsai-Trump Telephone Talk Tantrum

In light of just how clearly unsuited to the job of president Donald Trump is, it is perhaps not surprising to see a lot of people castigating Trump for offending China's Communist rulers by accepting a congratulatory phone-call from Tsai Ing-Wen, Taiwan's democratically-elected president, and seizing on this as further evidence of Trump's incompetence.

Let's be clear on this: Trump may be incompetent, but Taiwan is a US ally which the United States is committed to defend against Chinese aggression. As Trump himself pointed out, the US has supplied Taiwan with billions in military hardware. The idea that there's no contact between the two states is just silly, and the US president-elect speaking to the Taiwanese president is just a natural extension of that.

The purpose of diplomacy is not to please all people in the world all the time. It is certainly not to avoid ever offending the Chinese government.

Yes, Trump is careless. Yes, announcing this conversation to the world via Twitter is perhaps not wise. Yes, there is the suspicion that he did this without actually knowing the nature of US-Taiwan relations. Ultimately, though, he has not done anything wrong in talking to Tsai.

The only wrong here is the one that the Chinese government continues in committing year after year: diplomatically isolating the people of Taiwan and their democratically-elected representatives.

[Picture: Tsai Ing-Wen on the campaign trail circa 2009. Via Wiki]

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.