Wednesday, 31 August 2016

The wrongness . . . . it burns . . .

It's been a long, long time since I felt the need to go line-by-line through a China/Taiwan piece pointing out everything that was wrong with it. But sometimes you read something and just want to really rip on it.

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you this recent article published on the Forbes website entitled "Three Advantages China Has Over Taiwan". Let's start with the first advantage -

"People throughout China use “hanyu pinyin” to spell Chinese characters phonetically . . . Taiwan follows the Wade-Giles system of character Romanization"
As my good friend the Writing Baron often points out, Taiwan no longer uses Wade-Giles and (with the some exception of "grandfathered-in" place names or people's names) hasn't for a number of years. Hanyu Pinyin is actually the official Romanisation system used by the Taiwanese government, though other systems (e.g., Tongyong Pinyin) are used outside Taipei. the real problem here is not that Taiwan uses Wade-Giles (if they did, and used it consistently, this wouldn't be such a problem) but that a number of different systems are used, and that, since they aren't used in Chinese-language learning in Taiwanese schools, most people aren't very familiar with them.

Moving on to the second advantage:

"In China, you can order a pot of local tea from park vendors or in teahouses, a rarity in modern Taiwan."
This one is a real head-scratcher for me - has Ralph Jennings (the author of this piece) really not hung out in Taiwanese tea houses? There's plenty of them, for the good reason that Taiwan is internationally renowned amongst tea experts as a source of quality green teas (believe me, I've spoke to a few and this is the first thing they say about Taiwan). I had the same feeling on reading this passage:

"In Taiwan, the Chinese-style sit-down restaurant with a multi-paged menu and plush seats smacks of special occasions. In Chinese cities, those full-scale restaurants are common and affordable"
Maybe Jenning's definition of "affordable" is different to mine, but even on a TEFL teacher's salary back in 2001 I was eating out regularly at exactly this sort of restaurant and still do every time I go back to Taiwan. Meanwhile plenty of Chinese families find it difficult to afford to eat out because China is still a very poor country.

The last "advantage" is a real doozy:

"You can stride down most sidewalks of Chinese cities without banging into things (despite the odd illegally parked car). In Taiwan, pedestrians yaw from side to side and watch underfoot to avoid objects stored on sidewalks. They should mind ad-hoc vendors and stored kitchen equipment, for example. In China, code enforcers known as the “chengguan” allow less occupation of public spaces, especially tight ones. You see newspaper and snack stands but they don’t cause clog and you see little else."
It's hard to know where to start with this one because it's so incredibly wrong. Maybe I should start with the shanty towns you find springing up to house the migrants who come into the big cities in China to work on building sites and so forth? Or perhaps the street hawkers that are ubiquitous outside all but the biggest city centres? Or perhaps note the simple fact that the Chengguan are renowned for their willingness to take a little cash to look the other way?

Nah, instead I'll just invite you to have a look at this picture:

This is taken in the Xinyi district in central Taipei - notice how it doesn't at all resemble Jenning's description? Jennings appears to have gone to (at most) a few of the big city-centres in mainland China and drawn a comparison directly from what he found there to the typical Taiwanese street, but the real comparison should be between second and third-tier cities (many of which still have larger populations than Taipei) and their Taiwanese equivalents - but in that case there would be no contest, Taiwan would win hands-down.

(Picture: Xinyi district, via Wiki)

Friday, 24 June 2016

"Someone had blundered"

100 years ago this morning, the British guns began their preparatory bombardment in what was to become known as the battle of the Somme. Despite firing 1.5 million shells over 5 days, when the British began their attack the Germans were waiting for them. Roughly 20,000 British infantrymen were killed in a single day, and tens of thousands more wounded. The slaughter became infamous - men sent to charge against machine guns with bayonets, gaily leaving their trenches, in places kicking a football before them in expectation of an easy victory against an enemy their officers told them was already destroyed by the bombardment. As Tennyson wrote of another battle "someone had blundered".

 The immediate result of yesterday's narrow vote for the UK to leave the EU will not be nearly so disastrous, at least immediately (who knows in the long term?), but they will be bad indeed. The intial chaos in the markets, the threats of secession from both the SNP and Sinn Fein, even the threat to Gibraltar from the Spanish, all show this to be so.

 The blame lies with poor leadership and deep self-deception. Despite multiple detailed, factual warnings, many of the people voting leave genuinely seem to have believed the assurance that they would lose little financially from leaving the EU. The supreme threat that this vote has created to the continued existence of the United Kingdom is something they either did not believe in or did not care about. They either believed the promises coming from the Leave camp of more NHS spending and lower immigration, or simply wanted to thumb their noses at "the establishment" (whoever they are). 

Their disillusionment will be swift. The promise of an imaginary £350 million pounds a week extra being liberated for the NHS has already been disavowed, and the idea that immigration will actually be eliminated or reduced significantly down-played, by the same people who loudly pronounced both as facts only a few days ago. The people who will be hurt by the economic trouble that Brexit will inevitably cause will be the ordinary men in the street, not the "establishment".

 Nicholas Soames, the grandson of Winston Churchill, summed up the feelings of many on the Remain side about the vote:
This of, of course, is not the end of the story of Britain in Europe. There is still much to fight for, not least because the Leave campaign, in their supreme mendacity, did not bother to publish any kind of real plan for what would happen after a vote to leave. As a bare minimum people who value our deep economic and cultural ties with Europe have freedom of movement and membership of the EEA still left to fight for. There is now talk of a general election this year, which will hopefully precede any invocation of Article 50 (which automatically triggers the process of leaving the EU). Any party running on an EU-friendly platform is sure to attract votes from people aghast at the vote of yesterday's vote - and there will be more of these as the realisation of the true consequences of Brexit sinks in, even amongst Leave voters.

 For me this is bad both personally and a professionally. My job is in a Europeanised profession for a company that does much business in Europe. My wife and I are of two different European countries, our son holds the passports of both. I took solace in her hugs and his smiles this morning. I am British and proud, but I cannot help also being a European of sorts, and the simple act of removing the UK from the EU (possibly shorn of Scotland and Northern Ireland as a result of this madness) will not change this.

Thursday, 16 June 2016

I want my country back

Yesterday, as I watched the rival fleets of Bob Geldof and Nigel Farage tussle on the Thames in bemused disbelief, I was also angry at the way we had somehow managed to import the worst elements of the US's toxic political culture to the UK, but it was at least something you could laugh at.

Today the laughter fell silent. Today would see the murder of an MP who was a champion of refugees and the remain campaign by a gun-wielding man who witnesses claim shouted "Britain First". Her last published article was entitled "Brexit is no answer to real concerns on immigration".

We are yet to see what this man's motive's actually were. It is of course possible that they had nothing to do with the referendum with which this horrific murder coincides, and is nothing to do with Jo Cox's views on immigration and the EU. It is certain that the Leave campaign did not intend for something like this to happen and will deny that anything they might have done has contributed to this.

However, you cannot repeatedly use the language of anger, hatred, and violence and, having created a chaotic atmosphere in which people can seemingly no longer tell the difference between the truth and lies, then be surprised when people act on what you have said. You cannot talk about immigration being an "invasion" and not expect that some disturbed person might take you at your word. You cannot talk about an EU "dictatorship" to which we have "surrendered" without having to consider that you might actually be talking about a real dictatorship to which we have really surrendered.

Here's Alex Massie -
 If you spend days, weeks, months, years telling people they are under threat, that their country has been stolen from them, that they have been betrayed and sold down the river, that their birthright has been pilfered, that their problem is they’re too slow to realise any of this is happening, that their problem is they’re not sufficiently mad as hell, then at some point, in some place, something or someone is going to snap. And then something terrible is going to happen.

Enough of this. I want back the country in which I thought I lived until this referendum came along. The one where, whilst debate was always been boisterous and forth-right, it was not (outside Northern Ireland) violent or bare-facedly dishonest. The monstrous dishonesty and xenophobia that the Brexit campaign has unleashed must be put back in its box.

Tuesday, 31 May 2016

The agony of the eurosceptic 'Bremainer'

I'm going to level with you: I don't like the EU. I never have. One of the earliest posts on this blog was on the subject of the European Union - and it was far from positive. I later wrote an article comparing the EU to the Chinese communist party. My job brings me into semi-regular contact with EU institutions (primarily the EU intellectual property office) and much of what they do seems wasteful.

But I'm going to vote to stay in the EU.

I'm not going to vote out of any commitment to European federalism - a project I think incredibly misguided and likely to end in disaster, and which has resulted in disaster with the Euro. If this referendum were about avoiding joining the Euro, or creating a European army, or any of the federal projects that the Brexit campaign say may happen (but won't because the UK has a veto on them), then I'd vote to leave in a heart-beat. The high-flown ideals that supporters of the EU sometimes talk about leave me cold. At this stage if you're not sceptical about the EU then you just haven't been paying attention.

Unlike that previous referendum on another union - the United Kingdom - the (happily inaccurate) polls showing a majority favouring a vote to leave don't hit me like a punch to the gut. Whilst I have family connections to other EU countries, it's not like leaving the EU is going to endanger these. There's a possibility that new immigration rules might be troublesome if I wanted to live on the continent again, and possibly my wife may have to get a visa, but these are hardly insuperable challenges.

No, if we leave the EU things will most likely (eventually) be OK. But we'd also likely be poorer than we would be if we stayed - almost all the experts say so - and there seems no real likelihood that there would any commensurate gain to offset that. Even pro-remain economists like Andrew Lilico think we'd miss out on around 2-3% in GDP growth in the short-medium term, which offsets even the most optimistic predictions about how much would be saved.

The story that we'd be doing more business outside of Europe if we were outside the EU is the sheerest, most pure fantasy.  There is absolutely no-one out there of any real credibility saying "I'd love to do invest in the UK, but I can't because of the EU" or "I'd like to buy your products, but the EU is stopping me". People who think otherwise seem to me simply to be people obsessed with extremely minor things like the so-called "tampon tax", or immigration, something which I do not see as a problem at the moment (or at least not one where the EU is the main source of the problem).

Instead I can see from my own work that Brexit will inevitably lead to slower growth and most likely a recession in the short term. I am already hearing from friends in the UK patents/trademarks trade that their US, Chinese, and Japanese clients are worried that they won't be able to represent them fully in the EU post-Brexit, and some are bound to switch to EU-based firms if we leave the EU, even if we somehow remain in the EEA by joining the EFTA (something the Leave campaign has ruled out). Nothing, absolutely nothing that the Brexit campaign have shown any credible evidence for, is worth making ourselves poorer than we might otherwise have been.

Leaving the EU marginally increases the risk of war on the continent by emboldening aggressive regimes such as Vladimir Putin's. It also may possibly strengthen the case for Scottish independence in the long term. By themselves these wouldn't stop me voting to leave the EU if there was any substance at all to the claim that UK sovereignty were seriously endangered by the EU, but since it isn't, they also count in my decision-making.

Tuesday, 26 April 2016


Today, after the longest inquest in British legal history, the jury in the inquest into the 1989 Hillsborough disaster finally rendered its verdict. As I wrote seven years ago at the time of twentieth anniversary after watching the memorial service on television:
Seeing a government minister silenced by 30,000 people chanting "Justice for the 96" made me feel indescribably proud. I feel this to be a case similar to that of Derek Bentley - it doesn't matter if a re-opening of the case is too late, some measure of justice needs to be done.
It is striking to note that the re-opening of the case that finally rendered a measure of justice for the families of the 96 people who were killed in the disaster was actually a direct result of Andy Burnham's having been shouted down at the memorial service that day.

EDIT: In response to the verdict my brother posted this on Facebook, and I thought it quite fitting -

It took 27 years, but "we climb the hill in our own way/and every day is the right day"

Tuesday, 5 April 2016

"The Panama Route", the Panama Papers, and China's diplomatic relations

Right now the big item making waves in the news is the Panama Papers - a massive leak of documents from Mossack Fonseca which provides "rare insight into an operation which offers shady operators plenty of room to manoeuvre". Mossack Fonseca appears to be particularly active in Mainland China and Hong Kong, where 8 out of its 31 offices world-wide are located, and is rumoured to have some very well-connected Chinese clients - even Xi Jinping's brother-in-law has been implicated in the Panama Papers.

Obviously Mossack Fonseca are yet to be accused of any actual illegality as a result of this leak and they and their staff should of course be presumed innocent until any evidence is produced proving the opposite. However, speaking in very general terms, Chinese interest in Panama over the past decade or so has centred around two things: the canal that facilitates much of China's trade, and what is known as the "Panama Route" for moving money out of Mainland China, especially where the money has been earned in a way that might not be entirely legal.

Chinese interest in building a new canal across the Cantral American isthmus appears to have flagged somewhat, especially as the expansion of the Panama canal, which was well in hand when I visited that country, appears to render any new canal entirely redundant. The "Panama Route" on the other hand, is quite different: supposedly it works by smuggling money out of Mainland China to another country (South Korea is the one I've heard about, but others may work as well) and then wiring it from there to Panama. Once the money is safely in Panama, so legend has it, since Panama does not have diplomatic relations with the PRC but instead recognises the Republic of China, it is almost impossible for Mainland Chinese authorities to touch it.

Interestingly, the Panamanian government even sought to switch recognition to the PRC as recently as 2009, only to be rebuffed by the PRC government out of an apparent desire not to breach the diplomatic truce between the two sides of the Taiwan strait. Funnily enough, despite the end of the "truce" with the recent establishment of diplomatic relations between the Gambia and the PRC after their 2013 breach with Taipei, there has not been any sign, yet, of movement in the Panamanian case despite the long-expressed desire to switch recognition.

The suspiciously-minded might suspect that the PRC leadership are purposefully delaying the switch as the "Panama Route" is rumoured to have proved useful for them and their families. However, there is not nearly enough evidence at the moment to draw this conclusion - but if Panama's diplomatic switch from Taipei to Beijing is significantly delayed, you might be forgiven for thinking that their motive in doing so may have something to do with keeping the "Panama Route" open.

[Picture: a view through the fortress wall at San Lorenzo, Panama, which I visited with my wife whilst on honeymoon last year]

Saturday, 16 January 2016

Taiwan, after the gold-rush

Back around the end of October last year I took the opportunity offered by a friend's wedding in Hong Kong to make a week-long side-trip to Taiwan. Whilst I'd lived in Taiwan from 2001-2002, and visited there regularly whilst working for Foxconn (the Taiwanese manufacturing giant) in the middle years of the last decade, this was the first time I'd been back there since 2009.

Taiwan is still the great place to be that I remember, though of course as all the people there I knew in my 20's are dealing with the issues that you find yourself dealing with in your 30's and 40's, so clubbing was no longer on the agenda (though we did sink more than a few beers at The Hammer). Staying with my good friend The Writing Baron in Danshui I was able to visit all the local sites - the various old century forts and residences being worth a good afternoon's wander to see.

[At the Hongmao Cheng in Danshui]
When I'd previously lived in Taiwan, the generally-held view amongst the expats was that Taiwan was something of an undiscovered gem. If that was the case back in 2001 it no longer really can be said to be so since the expansion of cross-strait links has led to large scale tourism by mainlanders, with mainland tourist groups visible at all of Taipei's tourist attractions. The CKS memorial, which still has the propaganda-tastic War of Resistance museum underneath it (it basically tries to make out that the massive defeats that Chinese forces suffered during the war were a form of tactical retreat), was thronging with mainland groups.

Politically also Taiwan has seen some surprising developments. I was amazed to find, as I walked down Ketagalan Boulevard (the main thoroughfare going by the presidential palace in Taipei) to find half the road blocked off with tape for a demonstration by no more than about a dozen or so aged pro-unification demonstrators singing pro-Communist songs. The sound of Without the Communist Party, There Would Be No New China being sung somewhat tunelessly in an unmistakable Taiwanese accent is certainly not something I would have expected to hear in Taiwan even now.

[PRC flags on display at the pro-unification demonstration on Ketagalan]

A few hundred yards from Ketagalan I also stumbled on the stalls and banners of the pro-independence camp, brashly declaring themselves in favour of democracy and liberty. In contrast to the pro-unification demonstration, these were totally unmanned -it appeared that they had gone off for lunch.
[Out to lunch? The stalls of the pro-independence movement] 

Of course, both demonstrations form the wave-top-froth hiding the deeper currents in the waters of Taiwanese politics. Arriving in the aftermath of the replacement of the KMT's presidential candidate Hung Hsiu-chu (who had proved unpopular) with Eric Chu (who was proving equally unpopular), the result of the presidential election (the polls for which have just closed) seemed an almost foregone conclusion. The DPP's Tsai Ingwen is almost certainly going to become the first female president in the Chinese-speaking world, the first de jure (as well as de facto) female ruler of a de jure (if perhaps not really de facto) Chinese state since the Empress Wu Zetian in the 8th century AD.

The reasons for this likely electoral avalanche go beyond the mere unpopularity of the KMT candidate to economic stagnation which seems to have Taiwan in a solid grip. The economic boon which the greater integration with mainland China (as championed by the KMT) promised has not been realised. It is uncertain, however whether the DPP would have done things very differently had it been in power over the last 8 years - indeed when asked about Ma Yingjiu's achievements in establishing links with the mainland in a 2012 interview Tsai Ingwen essentially said that the credit for them belonged to the DPP's pre-2008 talks with mainland officials.

The impact of this economic malaise is palpable throughout Taiwan. On a nostalgic trip back to Miaoli, where I had first lived in Taiwan, it struck me that at the time I had lived there the town had been in the middle of a mini-gold-rush of sorts. Miaoli was home to many of the engineers who worked on the construction of the high-speed railway, now completed, and at the same time Taiwan in general was going through a fad for buxiban (cram schools) that employed many foreign teachers. Bars and schools abounded in the town to serve both.

Now many of the old bars which I knew have closed, with few new ones opening to replace them. Many of the old buxiban had also closed, in fact whole chains that ordinary people in Taiwan would have known by name had dwindled to insignificance - the Shane English Schools chain that I worked at in 2001 seemed to have shrunk to only it's head office on Roosevelt Rd in Taipei, and re-focused its efforts on study-abroad programs. Friends who I met over a bowl of noodles had all either lost their jobs or found themselves stuck in an economic rut.

Despite inflation averaging 1-2% since 2001, the salaries people were earning for jobs like English teaching were exactly the same, or even a bit less, than those that they would have made 15 years ago. This problem is not limited only to the English-teaching business either - real-terms wages in Taiwan saw no growth between 2000 and 2011. The prospect of Taiwan becoming permanently stuck in what might be termed an "upper-middle income trap" is very real.

Inevitably, the cross-strait issue remains the big issue in Taiwan. Paradoxically to what some on the pro-China side might have expected, the Taiwanese identity has only strengthened as cross-strait ties have burgeoned. Everyone I asked about in Taiwan spoke of this.

It's glib to talk of familiarity breeding contempt, but there is certainly an element of this. I saw this even amongst my pro-KMT colleagues at Foxconn - the more they came into contact with the mainland and particularly its government, the more they became conscious of the differences between mainland China and Taiwan. It is hard to see people who identify primarily as Taiwanese ever willingly accepting the rule of the present mainland Chinese government.

With Tsai's likely election, it's inevitable that there will be talk of increased tensions. It is important to keep in mind here that the real tensions in the Taiwan Straits come from the threat of invasion of Taiwan from mainland China, and that it is only the complete withdrawal of this threat to Taiwan's freedom and security that will remove these tensions. With the growing military capabilities of mainland China, capabilities that will soon mean that (unlike in previous years) an invasion might actually be launched with a fair degree of certainty of success, and with a much more hardline mainland Chinese government that is also facing potential economic problems which it may wish to distract people from, this seems unlikely.

[UPDATE 1] The BBC is now reporting a victory for Tsai. with Chu conceding and resigning as head of the KMT. Taiwan is now entering a new era . . .

[UPDATE 2] The Central Electoral Commission has Tsai receiving 56.2% of the vote, an increase of more than 10% over her defeat in 2012. This compares favourably with Ma's 51.8% in 2012, but is a bit lower than Ma's 58.5% victory in 2008. The KMT languish at 31% of the vote.

[UPDATE 3] Shanghaiist reports that the DPP has won 50 of the seats in 110-seat Legislative Yuan  declared so far, with 34 seats still to announce. A majority seems virtually guaranteed, a 75% super-majority for the Pan-Green parties required to pass constitutional amendments is uncertain.

[UPDATE 4] HKFP is reporting a different figure - 41 seats for the DPP, 14 seats for the KMT, 3 seats for the post-Sunflower New Power Party.

[UPDATE 5] CTI news has the DPP at 68, KMT at 35, NPP at 5, PFP at 3, and others (New Party and TSU?) at 2. Depending on who the "others" are, that's 11-13 seats short of the 86 seats needed for a pan-green super-majority.

Tuesday, 12 January 2016


I was hesitant to write about David Bowie simply because it would inevitably mean having to address the, umm, difficult to talk about song China Girl (sure: there's an argument that it really isn't that racist, but it's not exactly a convincing one). However, since Jeremiah has already cleared the way on that one, I can simply dive into the fact that if you were born at any time from about 1955 onward his music has been an inevitable part of your life in a way that not even the Beatles, whose truly productive period lasted only about five years, really managed.

Even if you weren't much of a music aficionado, and I can't claim to be one, his music brings back memories. Here's mine -

Any Friday night at Kenny's bar in Miaoli 2001-2002:

The day after the wedding, very hung over, singing along whilst my brother noodled around on guitar, Wroclaw, 2014:

David Bowie was of my parent's generation, a generation that is now mostly either retired or fast approaching retirement, and which will start to pass from the scene in the coming decade. Unlike them, I and my middle-class middle-England peers did not, generally speaking, have to struggle against the social mores and constraints of our parents the way that they had to against theirs - we could if we wanted have long hair and wear make-up, listen to loud music and so-forth.

There is of course something embarrassing about this inter-generational cosiness, the embarrassment of a younger generation that never really rebelled all that much but which instead lives increasingly in the parental home and is reliant on parental money, but it sprang from an attitude of personal freedom and liberation which that generation championed simply by exercising it.

Thursday, 24 December 2015

Poland, revisited

One sentiment you occasionally hear expressed by some of the outside observers of Polish affairs that knew the country in the 1980's is that it has become a much more normal, ordinary, (and perhaps even boring?) country since the end of Communism. With the recent election of Law & Justice (known to Poles as PiS) and the wrangling over the constitutional court, this may no longer be quite the case.

Visiting Poland for Christmas holidays I find that regular demonstrations now occur in the city of Wroclaw, and many others. This was certainly not the case a year ago.

On the one hand we have the supporters of the former governing part (Civic Platform, or PO as it is known in Poland) and others who characterise PiS's recent changes to the constitutional court as a coup - I have even heard people in all seriousness compare them simultaneously to the Nazis and the Bolsheviks. It is fair to say that almost of all the people I know in Poland are of this opinion, though this is merely evidence of the kind of people who I associate with and demonstrates, yet again, that one cannot simply rely on one's acquaintances to give you a full picture of the political sentiment of a country.

On the other there are the supporters of PiS (who are the majority of the voting public) who believe that these changes are necessary in order to address some of the compromises made in the negotiations that brought about the fall of communism in the country. Finally, there is, even in a fairly liberal city like Wroclaw, a small but substantial fringe of supporters of fascist parties like the ONR and NOP who believe that things should be taken much, much further. The graffiti of the supporters of these far-right parties can be seen throughout the city, often paradoxically paired with the symbol of the wartime Polish resistance.

My personal instinct is that things cannot possibly be so serious as all that - coming from a country without a constitutional court, or even a single codified constitution, it is hard to see what the fuss is all about. This is particularly  the case when PO seems to have contributed significantly to the 'crisis' by trying to rush through the appointment of judges to the constitutional court prior to its electoral defeat.

I am however a bit concerned by the rhetoric of some of the prominent members of PiS (Jarosław Kaczyński described those who demonstrated against PiS's policies as "the worst kind of Poles") and by the very odd incident of a night-time raid on a Warsaw-based NATO-affiliated counter-intelligence organisation. This is, however, still a long way from Putinism or even Viktor Orban-style down-grading of democracy and I cannot see the idea of a potential EU condemnation of PiS actions as anything but very unwise - it smacks of exactly the kind of interference in internal affairs that has done some much to alienate Britons from the EU, and will seem hypocritical coming from an organisation that has so often rode roughshod over the democratically-expressed wishes of national polities.

Tuesday, 15 December 2015

Monday, 30 November 2015

Japan's "scientific" whaling

So the Japanese government has announced that it's going to permit further whaling for "scientific" purposes even though the ICJ reportedly ruled that all Japanese whaling should cease.

Whilst I don't really know enough to comment on the legality or otherwise of Japanese whaling, the one thing that anyone who has spent a while living and working in Japan can easily comment on is the claim that this whaling is scientific: put simply, it's very hard to believe that any scientific purpose is served by this whaling. Instead the whale meat harvested for supposed "scientific purposes" is actually sold throughout Japan in specialist restaurants as well as from stalls at events.

I found this out first hand when I went to a company banquet back in 2010 in Kochi, on the south coast of Shikoku island, and was served what appeared to be a thick, layered, rubbery-looking substance with tiny bits of meat in it. It looked, smelt, and tasted foul, and even before discovering what it was I felt sick - it is hard to understand how anyone would eat such whale meat by choice.

The day after the banquet we went on a tour of a local museum dedicated primarily to local hero Sakamoto Ryoma. Whilst the museum was interesting enough, it had a section given over to "local cultural practices", with dioramas showing the hunting of walls by the locals in ill-defined "ancient times".  It was easy to connect the dots - like similar practices elsewhere in the world, this appears to be one maintained in the face of outside opposition primarily because the opposition to it comes from outside the community in which it occurs and is defended as "traditional".

[Picture: a detail from a painting showing whaling off the coast of Wakayama. Via Wiki]

Monday, 26 October 2015

A whistle-stop visit to Hong Kong

Right now I'm sat in Hong Kong airport waiting for a flight to Taipei. Hong Kong is much the wonderful mix of a place that I remembered it to be. I spent yesterday at a friend's wedding up in the hills of the New Territories, where English, Cantonese, and Mandarin joined in a merry cacophony about the dining tables.

On a quick visit like this it's hard to draw much of an impression of a place: the biggest concern on most people's minds was the ever-increasing price of property her - a not dissimilar worry to that on the minds of a lot of people back in the UK. The biggest difference I noticed was the increase in the prominence of Mandarin in Hong Kong, a language that more and more Hong Kongers are at least trying to get some familiarity with, though for professionals it has not yet knocked English off the number two spot.

Monday, 31 August 2015

Jeremy Corbyn and Press TV

I've written a few times about the phenomenon of western European and American journalists and commentators appearing on the state-run media outlets of autocratic regimes, such as Press TV, RT, CCTV 9, and the like, and the moral hazard inevitably involved in doing so. Whilst I'm willing to accept the protests of those who say that appearing on these channels does not mean that they actually support the regimes that control their editorial content, it really is hard to believe that these people were not guilty of (at minimum) extreme naivety and incuriousness.

It is therefore with very little surprise that I read that (left-wing hopeful for the leadership of the Labour Party) Jeremy Corbyn regularly appeared on Press TV in recent years (he stood in for George Galloway), even after Press TV's activities during the Iranian regimes repression of the Green Revolution caused many to question whether it was appropriate to appear on this channel. To quote one journalist who refused to appear on the channel: "it seems to give legitimacy to a regime that treats its own people like sh*t and spreads poison and violence around the world".

The comments made by him when appearing on the channel that have caused the most controversy (that Bin Laden's death was a "tragedy") are actually defensible - whilst few tears were shed over Bin Laden's demise, it would have been better if he had stood trial. What for me is very difficult to defend (or even comprehend) is how Corbyn could have, in good conscience, appeared on a channel that has previously trumpeted holocaust-denial and defended the execution of people for the 'crime' of being gay, a channel that had previously broadcast the torture-extracted 'confession' of an Iranian human rights activist to working with foreign 'spies' disguised as journalists. This, by itself, should cast doubt as to whether he is at all suited to high office in a democratic country like the UK.

Unfortunately, Jeremy Corbyn's supporters seem totally immune to evidence of his unsuitability as Labour party leader, which is legion, so knowledge of his appearances on Press TV is unlikely to shake their resolve either. I totally agree with Alex Massie that the likely outcome of his selection as party leader (which now seems inevitable) will be a total slaughter at the polls in 2020. However, there is always the risk in politics that some disaster will tip one party out of power and another in, regardless of how suited it is for rule, so there is always the possibility, albeit slim, that this man might one day become the leader of the UK - and that would be a disaster compounded by a disaster.

[EDIT: Interestingly, Jeremy Corbyn has declared at least two payments of up to £5,000 in recent years from Press TV for appearances]