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]

Monday, 17 August 2015

"More market-friendly"

One of the reasons given for the People's Bank of China's devaluation of the Yuan was to allow the currency to reach "more market-friendly" value, one closer to that at which offshore Yuan are being sold on the open market. After all, the devaluation wasn't achieved directly by fiat, but instead by allowing the trading price to vary within a 2% band and, officially, no longer holding the reference rate at a fixed value but instead using the previous-days closing price to decide the reference rate for the next day.

The problem is that PBOC seems intent on deciding what the previous day's reference rate is by intervening massively in the market in the final minutes of the trading day. That at least is what appears to be happening based on the volume of trading seen in the last few minutes of the trading day in the above graph.

Does this really matter? Well, to the extent that the PBOC loses credibility through apparent rigging of the market, and to the extent that this change was trumpeted as an example of the Chinese authorities "freeing" the Yuan, supposed boosting Beijing's case for the Yuan joining the major world currencies in the special drawing rights basket, yes it does matter.

[Click here to see the original graph on Neil Gough's Twitter feed] 

Saturday, 15 August 2015

The Apology

Yesterday the Japanese Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, gave a speech on the occasion of the 70th anniversary of Japan's surrender to the Allies, which brought an end to the Second World War. Whilst re-iterating the expressions of remorse for the harm caused by the war which Japan launched on Asia, and expressing the view that Japan had advanced along the road to war and been a challenger to the international order, the speech made no new form of apology, which has led to renewed criticism of Japan's leadership for being insufficiently contrite about the war from Japan's Asian neighbours.

Personally, I do not at all believe that there is any form of apology that Shinzo Abe could have given that would fully mollify the South Koreans and Chinese. The South Koreans at least recognised that a deeper apology was given by former Prime Minister Murayama and asked why he did not repeat this as Junichiro Koizumi did in 2005, though their response at the time Murayama and Koizumi made their apologies did not seem to recognise them as full apologies either. The Chinese, on the other hand, seem not to recognise that any real apology of any kind has ever been made by Japan's leaders.

The reasons for this have little to do with lasting memories of Japanese war crimes and crimes against humanity in the years between 1931 and 1945, which were numerous and terrible. This can be stated with confidence simply because in the decades immediately following the war criticism of Japan for being insufficiently contrite was so much more muted, both from China and Korea. For example, the document that established relations between the People's Republic of China and Japan dealt with war-guilt in only two places. Here:

"The Japanese side is keenly aware of Japan's responsibility for causing enormous damages in the past to the Chinese people through war and deeply reproaches itself . . . The Chinese side welcomes this"
And here:

"The Government of the People's Republic of China declares that in the interest of friendship between the peoples of China and Japan, it renounces its demand for war indemnities from Japan"

The statement felt no need to note insufficient contrition on the part of the Japanese, nor was this expressed by any of the officials responsible for re-establishing relations on the Chinese side either. Such misgivings, if they existed, had clearly be shelved for later generations to address. China at that time was supportive of various Japanese initiatives, including their resumption of sovereignty over Okinawa, despite later claims from people like (PLA General) Luo Yuan within China that Okinawa really belongs to them.

In Chinese affairs the change from a broadly-friendly position towards Japan to one suspicious towards Japan came later. Whilst Taiwan under the ROC, and to a less extent Hong Kong, saw protests about the 1972 transfer of administrative rights over the Senkaku Islands, these were not echoed in mainland China. Instead it was with the decline in communist ideology in mainland China and its replacement with nationalist rhetoric that differences with Japan and the war became an endless source of material to inspire such sentiment amongst young people through the education system and the media.

That this was so was instantly apparent to anyone who observed the 2005 anti-Japanese protests, sparked by the approval of denialist text-books for use in at most 18 schools in Japan, which were overwhelmingly made up of young people, and for which supporting sentiment was most widely expressed amongst young people. As the sellers of Japanese goods and Japan-themed restaurants tried to protect themselves against attack by displaying Chinese flags and poster-sized pictures of Mao Zedong in their windows, the people who marched outside their doors were overwhelmingly of university age. In Nanjing, where I was working and studying at the time, wide-scale protest was headed off by the authorities after it had outgrown its usefulness by the simple expedient of threatening to expel students who took part.

Whilst the issue of whether Japan's leadership and government has been contrite enough about the war, done enough to educate people as to what actually happened, and done enough to counter those who deny that Japanese war crimes occurred or that Japan was responsible for the war, is a real one. However, it's clear that in the People's Republic at least it is basically a tool for use both in domestic control and in external diplomacy.

In countries which suffered at the hands of that Japanese where the impact of nationalism is less strongly felt, including my own, such things are commonly regarded as of lesser importance than the trade a cultural links with Japan. Whilst the UK did not suffer even nearly as badly as China did at the hands of the Japanese, I heard similar sentiments expressed in Malaysia when I visited there back in 2009, in the Philippines when I visited there in 2003, and from Indonesians I have been acquainted with - all places which suffered greatly at the hands of the Japanese.

Abe's speech also contained one very sane statement:
"In Japan, the postwar generations now exceed eighty per cent of its population. We must not let our children, grandchildren, and even further generations to come, who have nothing to do with that war, be predestined to apologize. Still, even so, we Japanese, across generations, must squarely face the history of the past. We have the responsibility to inherit the past, in all humbleness, and pass it on to the future."
At some point the Second World War will merge into the past and its grievances will have to be set to one side. It is certainly illogical to demand apologies for events that occurred before the people who you are demanding them from were even born. This point is fast approaching, and these demands for apologies cannot be allowed to continue beyond it. The alternative is the idea that it correct to inflict some kind of biblical punishment "unto the third and fourth generation" on the Japanese people.

[Picture: The letter sent to former British inmates of Japanese POW camps by the King welcoming them on their return to the UK] 

What the hell just happened in China?

It's been a crazy, dangerous period in Chinese affairs. Firstly, following on from the stock-market crash which saw indexes fall by 30% over a couple of weeks, and which was only stopped by suspending trading more than 1000 companies (hundreds are still suspended even now) and restricting selling, we've seen a slew of economic data that strongly suggests that an economic slow-down is now in progress, despite government GDP growth figures that suggest otherwise

This was then followed by a devaluation of the Yuan by what, whilst it was not a large amount in the grand scheme of things, was done in a way that seemed almost calculated to destroy government credibility on the issue of the value of the Yuan. It came after the government said it would not devalue the Yuan for the entirely valid reason that this would be counter to their goal of encouraging a consumer society in place of the export-driven economic model of the past few decades. It was a "one-off" devaluation that was then continued for three days.  It was announced as an attempt to lower the Yuan to a more market-friendly value, but when the value kept falling the PBOC then stepped back in to buoy up the price and we saw volatility in the price go right to zero as the PBOC fought to stop any further decline in the value of the Yuan.

Meanwhile the gap between the onshore (i.e., government-controlled) and market-decided offshore values of the Yuan was not closed by much, allowing the onshore value to sink just re-set expectation as to the offshore value. This won't be the last time it happens.

After this, came the series of massive explosions at the port of Tanggu in the Tianjin Economic Development Area which is now reported to have killed more than 85 people.  Whilst this is the kind of accident that can occur in any country (indeed, just today a chemical plant in Texas saw multiple explosions), the distrust of the official government explanations behind it, the censorship of stories about it, the blocking of foreign media trying to report on the story, all speak of a country in which the government still seeks to control what the public think about domestic events. The content of the rumours around the blasts is hardly likely to be music to the government's ears: not least of all story that the owner of Ruihai Enterprises, the company on whose premises the explosions occured, is a relative of Li Ruihuan, a former politburo member who hails from the Tianjin area.

Finally, came the senseless killing of a young woman in Beijing's Sanlitun district and the stabbing of her French husband to whom she had only recently been married. Whilst Chinese police have proclaimed themselves baffled as to the motives of the killing, social media is reporting that this was motivated by hatred of foreigners. It would be deeply unfair to extrapolate from this incident to a picture of growing anti-foreigner sentiment in China in general - in my experience the majority of Chinese people do not harbour such sentiment though a sizable minority do. However, the government hardly does anything discourage such sentiment when pretty much everything bad that happens in China is intimated in government propaganda as being linked to shady foreign forces.

Above the daily churn of stories of the kind which might emerge anywhere, China seems to be entering a period of growing instability. Whilst I agree with Eric Fish that no-one really knows what will happen long-term in China, the very fact that no-one can predict with confidence what direction China is going in speaks volumes about the country's instability.

[Wrecked cars and buildings damaged by the Tianjin blast in a residential area near the port. Via Wiki]