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.

Tuesday, 8 November 2016

US elections

As a Brit I have long felt something slightly demeaning about the way we in the UK concentrate so much on the outcome of US election when Americans seemingly care so little about elections beyond their borders. All the same their elections undeniably affect us in a way that our elections do not affect them.

This time round, I find myself surprised to find that whilst the election is close, and whilst I do know quite a few right-leaning Americans, I do not have a single American acquaintance who is voting for Donald Trump. I know people who voted for Bush, McCain, and Romney, but not a single Trump voter. Despite my efforts to try not to fall into an echo-chamber where only your own views are repeated back to you, one has shaped itself around me anyway by simple virtue of the background of my friends in the US (well-travelled, well-educated people).

Therefore, whilst I get why someone would hesitate before voting for Hillary Clinton, I honestly have no idea why anyone would vote for Trump. I could hazard any number of guesses as to why people might vote for a candidate who, viewed from afar, looks like a disaster waiting to happen, but I really don't know why they would do and no amount of listening and watching radio and television programs on this subject has left me that much wiser.

I doubt very much that anyone will be swayed much by my opinion on this, but the clear, pragmatic choice is a vote for Hillary Clinton. She is the best qualified, and her policies are moderate in the extreme.

The idea seems to have gained traction in both the US and other countries that a vote is about who you are, candidates try to sell themselves as the "hope" candidates in a "change" election. This is foolish. Voting is not about making you feel good about yourself, it's a choice much as many other choices you make in life where you are simply trying to choose the least-worst option. A failure to do this simply because you do not feel particularly inspired by a candidate or party is a failure to behave like an adult.

By contrast, a win for Trump is simply inconceivable. I cannot imagine what the world will look like if he wins but it will undoubtedly be worse.

Friday, 4 November 2016

Xi Jinping becomes a "core leader"

Somewhat missed amongst the recent happenings in the UK and the US was the elevation of Xi Jinping, President of the People's Republic of China and head of the Chinese Communist Party, to the status of "core leader". Whilst some have be given to down-playing this, I think it significant in at least two ways.

Firstly, this signals a definite and final break with the Hu/Wen model of a dual leadership team of near-equals. There is absolutely no question now that Li Keqiang (the Chinese premier) is subordinate to Xi Jinping in a way that Wen Jiabao was not subordinate to Hu Jintao. Xi Jinping is the paramount leader of China and no talk from the CCP about how collective leadership still “must always be followed" can change the fact that having declared Xi to be a core leader on a par with Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping his word will be final.

The second significant aspect of this is that it further brings into question whether Xi will step down in 2022. Until relatively recently it was assumed amongst China watchers that the convention set by Hu/Wen of leadership teams serving ten-year terms together and then being replaced by the next generation of leadership would continue into the future. Whilst there was no real reason to believe this, and I myself did not believe it would carry on like this in a system with no checks and balances preventing the leadership simply arrogating power to themselves, Xi has now raised himself above such conventions and placed himself on a par with leaders who ruled China for decades. Moreover the generation of CCP leadership that might have replaced him is now significantly thinned and cowed as a result of Xi's "anti-corruption" campaign.

Back in the Hu/Wen years, one particularly silly argument you sometimes saw put forward by supporters of the CCP as to why they did not believe that China was a dictatorship was that China did not have a single dictator in charge at the top. Whatever validity this argument had is now completely wiped out. China now very clearly has a dictator - Xi Jinping - and there is now little preventing Xi staying on for another five, ten or even more years and becoming a Chinese Brezhnev.

Sunday, 30 October 2016

"Zhi Na"

It is rare for the taking of an oath itself to cause controversy. In the UK the only real controversy resulting from oath-taking is the long-standing refusal of members of Sinn Fein to swear the oath of allegiance to the queen to take their seats in the House of Commons - though the suspicion is that even if the oath requirement were waived they still would not take those seats much as they did not take their seats in the Irish Dail until the 1980's as this meant recognising Northern Ireland's constitutional status.

 In Hong Kong, however, this ordinarily straight-forward process has become the source of a great controversy. Baggio Leung and Yau Wai-ching, newly elected to the LegCo seats for New Territories East and Kowloon West, both attempted to make oaths firstly to "the Hong Kong nation". Yau Wai-ching then went on to call the People's Republic of China the "People’s Re&*^%ing of Chee-na"

Believe it or not, but the part of this that appears to have caused the most offense was the description of China as "Chee-na" (支那 or "Zhi Na" in Hanyu Pinyin). Whilst this term might appear to be just another version of the term "China", and indeed comes from the same root, it taps into memories of (and more importantly, memories of education about) the so-called "Century of Humiliation". The logic is that, as this term was used for China by the Japanese ("Shina" in Japanese) to belittle China (or at least, avoid calling it the rather self-aggrandising name meaning literally "Middle Country" under which it presently goes) during the period during which the Japanese carried out a ruthless and brutal invasion of China, then the term "Shina" (and any other version of it) is itself offensive. 

Personally I avoid using terms I think might offend people even if I'm dubious about the logic under which it is supposed to be offensive, if using the term is reasonably avoidable. I would never use the term "Zhi Na" and think that using it to essentially rile the pro-Beijing camp was basically a childish and stupid act. You regularly see Japanese nationalists and others using the term "Shina" simply because they wish to cause offence, and Yau Wai-ching's acts were in the same vein. That the Pro-Beijing camp has now over-reacted in a fashion that, to people on the pan-democrat side in Hong Kong, shows what faux-nationalist puppets of Beijing they are and given HK localists a massive publicity coup beyond anything they could have achieved simply by taking their seats, does not justify what was done.

 All the same it is pretty obvious that that there is ultimately little difference between "Shina" and the name "China" itself - "China" is also a name that we English-speakers use for the country currently ruled by the Chinese Communist Party at least partly because a literal translation of the Chinese name for that country sounds ridiculously self-aggrandising and quaint, and was also the name used for China during the Opium Wars and later. However, few suggest that we should use the term "Middle Country" or "Middle Kingdom" for China* instead of the name we presently use - although I would not at all be surprised if this happens in the future.

 *The name "Great Britain" is sometimes brought up in these circumstances, but this is a misunderstanding: "Great" here merely indicates the largest island of the British isles.

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.