Archive for the ‘Do Something Useful’ Category

Singaporean takeaway

October 27, 2014

I failed to write anything the week ending 18 October despite an interesting trip to participate in the 10th anniversary of the Lee Kwan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore. (They invited you, you’re thinking. Yes, they did. As Saul Bellow once wrote: ‘There is nothing too rum to be true.’)

I also had a wonderful side-visit that week across the causeway to Johor Bahru, about which I will say nothing more than that if you have never read Han Suyin’s classic novel And The Rain My Drink, you should get on and do so. The book is particularly recommended for Chinese, Indians, Malays, Japanese and assorted gweilos, all of whom feature amid the chaos of the Emergency in Malaya/Singapore. What is more, there is a new edition, published by Monsoon Books that contains two, new short forewords; one is by Han’s former ‘liberal’ Special Branch husband; and one is by a well-known Malaysian human rights lawyer. The forewords unlock a few secrets about the writing of and background to the book. The copy I picked up in Singapore has the cover contained in the previous link; the copy available on Amazon has a different cover but an online review indicates it has (at least) the additional foreword by Han Suyin’s second husband. The book is not a bad gift.

Aside from the trip to JB (the treatment of hundreds of thousands of Malaysians who cross the border for work each day is pretty shocking on both sides; waiting time is frequently hours), the week in Singapore gave me a chance to speak with a bunch of policy people and a couple of ministers, and so here are a few thoughts about a place I don’t often talk about:

 

Singapore menu du jour:

1. The Great Unwashed are becoming the Great Ungrateful. In the 2011 election, Harry Lee’s People’s Action Party (PAP) got, by Singapore standards, a kicking, hit by a negative vote swing of almost 7 percentage points which took it down to 60 percent of votes cast. More and more people have had enough of the PAP’s arrogance, its brutal elitism and its lack of the common touch. On top of this there is Singapore’s hideous inequality (Gini of income inequality at a record 0.54), the out-of-control immigration (including horrific numbers of dumb, fat gweilos), and the apparently congenital inability of PAP politicians to think in terms of the population’s interests as a whole. Back in the UK, the PAP makes me think of David Cameron and George Osborne on a really bad day.

2. Never underestimate Harry, or indeed Little Harry. The PAP remains a formidable machine when it comes to co-opting Singapore’s best and brightest. A reasonable example is chipper Minister for Culture, Community and Youth, Lawrence Wong, whom I had the pleasure to chat to. He is a big supporter of new PAP measures to curb real estate speculation and increase welfare transfers to the poor. It is not fundamental change, however it is change at the margin. The PAP’s logo may have been inspired by that of Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists, but the PAP has enjoyed considerably more success and longevity.

Oswald

Oswald

 

 

 

Harry

Harry

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

3. So the big PAP trope just now is that the party is becoming much more touchy-feely and getting down with the labouring masses. At a public forum, many-times minister — most recently Foreign Minister — George Yeo, who became the most senior PAP figure since the 1960s to lose his seat in 2011 (‘arrogance’, said one of my taxi drivers), summed up the required shift in elegant philosophical terms. He said that Singapore must move on from ‘utilitarianism’ and seek policies that work for as many people as possible. In other words, the crude majority (assuming there even is one in the next election, in 2015) should no longer ride rough shod over the interests of minority groups, be they the very poor, Malays, whomever. He didn’t use the second philosophical designation, but what he meant is that Singapore needs to shift from utilitarianism to something more Pareto efficient, where policy gains for the majority do not come at the expense of other people.

4. Unfortunately I am a sceptic and I don’t believe the PAP will change its stripes – at least not fast enough to prevent even more trouble at the next election. At the same forum I commended George Yeo for calling for a move to a more mature, thoughtful policy framework. Then I asked him when he thinks Singapore will stop hanging people. (Singapore releases poor and patchy data, but in some years has had the highest per capita state execution rate in the world.) The response was interesting: no more new George/new PAP. He simply said that killing people has a deterrent effect and that most Singaporeans are in favour of it. This is the old PAP we know and love: not letting facts or logic get in the way of what it wants to do. First, there is no statistically robust evidence – and there are many studies – that capital punishment has a deterrent effect, so the claim to the contrary is disingenuous. Second, the logical case against capital punishment doesn’t hinge on the debate about deterrence anyway. Instead — at least for me — the sledgehammer argument against capital punishment is that you cannot guarantee in any legal system not to make mistakes; and when you do make a mistake, you cannot bring wrongly-hanged people back from the dead. I have looked in detail at miscarriage of justice cases in both the UK and the US, each of which has a better, more transparent legal system than Singapore. So when George offered the sop that he is open to looking for better ways to kill people, I wasn’t overly impressed. In reality of course, the PAP is sufficiently embarrassed at some level about its barbarism that the number of killings has fallen sharply as its political support has waned in the 2000s and 2010s; in 2012, the number of convictions subject to mandatory capital punishment was reduced.

Hong Kong and the Emperor… and Tohti

September 25, 2014

A pleasant, somewhat lazy, couple of weeks <working> in Hong Kong and Shenzhen. Sitting on a surprisingly pleasant Shenzhen beach this week I watched the Hong Kong tycoon fraternity make its school trip to Beijing. Led by Head Boy Li Ka-shing, it was a full court press. Senior prefects Lee Shau-kee and Robert Kuok kept good order, while the dim but dependable Tung Chee-hwa explained his love of games and recited a short Ode to the Celestial Throne before the assembled Chinese leadership. A tremendous time was had by all, with the boys remarking that carpet and decor quality in the Great Hall is now almost as good as at home.

On the street of course, things are not quite so happy.

While the sixth form of St. Swag’s was up in Beijing learning how all is well in Hong Kong as is, school kids in the Special Administrative Region are boycotting classes this week to protest China’s gerrymandering of the 2017 election arrangements. If you haven’t followed it, the game is that everyone in Hong Kong will get a vote (as promised in the Basic Law), but Beijing will choose the candidates (<two or three>). It is actually a step back from the current arrangements which at least allowed the election of Henry Tang to Chief Executive to be blocked, replaced instead by the ineffectual but more brain-functional CY Leung.

Hong Kong, though it is rarely stated, is now just like Taiwan. The Taiwanese call it <Three Thirds>. In Taiwan, one third is Deep Blue (older, KMT, pro mainland integration). One third is Deep Green (younger, Democratic Progressive Party, pro independence). One third is in the middle.

So too, with only modest variation, in Hong Kong. There is no explicit pro independence camp but the generational gap is just the same. Hong Kong, like Taiwan, has entered its 1960s. And in the 1960s students on campus get beaten, and even shot if you remember, in their fight for what is right.

If you care at all, it is time to do whatever you can to prevent violence from arriving. You might write to the Chinese. But if you are a gweilo, that is likely counter-productive. Better to write to the American and British consuls in Hong Kong (emails below), and to the British and American governments, urging them to stand up for the spirit as well as the letter of the Basic Law, and to be ready to grant visas to Hong Kong students who will get arrest records, even criminal convictions, for peacefully protesting Beijing’s behaviour. It does make a difference if you have a moment.

Meanwhile, the Emperor. At the same time it is gently screwing Hong Kong, the Xi Jinping government’s decision to give a life sentence to, and seize all the assets of, the leading, non-separatist voice of Uighur nationalism, Ilham Tohti, is surely the most horrible, colonial, racist act we have seen from China for a very long time. Obama may have a lot on the Middle East, but he needs to draw some lines in the sand in East Asia. There are still plenty of rational voices in China, like there were in 1920s Japan. But the longer this stuff goes on, the harder, I think, the negotiating process becomes. I do not want to read this blog entry in 10 years time and find that some very unpleasant historical analogies going through my head were justified.

Well, enough of the misery. Tomorrow I return to Hong Kong for dinner with dear Hemlock. Back when CY Leung was elected, Hemlock had a hard-on for him, said he was going to change stuff. Not so much on the democratisation front, which would have to occur through a degree of managed confrontation, but in terms of the godfather economy and all those stitch-up oligopolies in real estate and retail and the securities markets. You gotta love Hemlock, even if he’s not as funny as he used to be. It is so heartening that after all these decades, the old boy could still be an ingenue (accent missing). It is so strange that it should turn out that I am the cynical one.

tycoons in beijing 0914

Above: Can’t get a bigger photo. Running anti-clockwise from Xi Jin-ping on the right, looks to me like Tung, K.S., Lee Shau-kee, Robert Kuok, Henry Cheng (son of Cheng Yu-tung, now decrepit), Lui, possibly Michael Kadoorie, and finally David Li of Bank of East Asia.

Saint Swag’s. September 2014 School trip to Beijing. 6th Form boys attending.

(Parents please note: the wearing of non-school uniform items such flat caps is strictly against school policy, including on school trips. Lui Senior (Cuthberts), who has already been in trouble this term for playing cards in dorm, has been fined a week’s tuck and given leaf sweeping for his transgression. This sort of thing will not be tolerated at St. Swag’s.)

Cheung Kong (Holdings) chairman Li Ka-shing

Chairman of Kerry Group, Robert Kuok

Chief executive officer of Shangri-La Asia, Kuok Khoon Chen

PCCW chairman and younger son of Li Ka-shing, Richard Li Tzar-kai

K Wah Group chairman and Galaxy Entertainment Group founder Lui Che-woo

Henderson Land Development chairman Lee Shau-kee and his elder son Peter Lee Ka-kit

Sun Hung Kai Properties Alternate Director Adam Kwok Kai-fai

Bank of East Asia chairman David Li Kwok-po

New World Development chairman Henry Cheng Kar-shun

CLP Holdings chairman Michael Kadoorie

Sino Land chairman Robert Ng Chee Siong

Harilela Group vice-chairman Gary Harilela

Hang Lung Properties chairman Ronnie Chan Chichung

Shui On Land chairman Vincent Lo Hong-sui

MGM China’s co-chairman and daughter of casino mogul Stanley Ho Hung-sun, Pansy Ho Chiu-king

Ian Fok Chun-wan, son of the late Henry Fok Ying-tung

Wharf (Holdings) chairman Peter Woo Kwong-ching

Asia Financial Holdings chairman Robin Chan Yau-hing

Li & Fung honorary chairman Victor Fung Kwok-king

Lai Sun Development chairman Peter Lam Kin-ngok,

Oriental Press Group former chairman Ma Ching-kwan

Glorious Sun Enterprises chairman Yeung Chun-kam

Phoenix Satellite Television chairman Liu Changle

Swire Pacific director Ian Shiu Sai-cheung

Shimao Property Holdings founder and chairman Hui Wing-mau

China Grand Forestry Resources Group founder Ng Leung-ho

Goldlion Holdings deputy chairman Ricky Tsang Chi-ming

Novel Enterprises vice-chairman Ronald Chao Kee-young

HKR International managing director Victor Cha Mou-zing

Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation chief executive officer Peter Wong Tung-shun

Prof Anna Pao Sohmen, daughter of late tycoon Pao Yue-kong

Far East Consortium International chairman David Chiu Tat-cheong

Shun Hing Group vice-chairman David Mong Tak-yeung

Galaxy Entertainment Group deputy chairman Francis Lui Yiu-tung

Dah Sing Life Assurance Company chairman David Wong Shou-yeh

Far East Holdings International chairman Deacon Chiu’s son, Duncan Chiu

Bank of China International Holdings deputy chief executive officer Tse Yung-hoi

Sing Tao News Corporation chairman Charles Ho Tsu-kwok

More:

UK Consul General to write to about standing up for the Basic Law, granting visas, etc is Caroline Wilson. hongkong.consular@fco.gov.uk

US Consul General to write to about standing up for the Basic Law (an agreement lodged with the United Nations), granting visas, etc is Clifford Hart. hartca@state.gov

Why foreigners do have a dog in any Hong Kong fight. Re-posted NYT oped.

Op-ed about the Hong Kong situation by former Chinese political prisoners in the Wall Street Journal.

Video stream of Hong Kong student protests this week.

On why allowing everyone to vote but restricting the candidates isn’t democracy, Georgetown professor Don Clarke offers this nicely phrased US 3rd Circuit decision in a corporate voting case from 1985. Here’s the actual law library link (Durkin v National Bank of Olyphant). Of course what the Chinese are doing is just what British colonial governments did, but let’s not go there.

<We rest our holding as well on the common sense notion that the unadorned right to cast a ballot in a contest for office, a vehicle for participatory decisionmaking and the exercise of choice, is meaningless without the right to participate in selecting the contestants. As the nominating process circumscribes the range of the choice to be made, it is a fundamental and outcome-determinative step in the election of officeholders. To allow for voting while maintaining a closed candidate selection process thus renders the former an empty exercise. This is as true in the corporate suffrage contest as it is in civic elections, where federal law recognizes that access to the candidate selection process is a component of constitutionally-mandated voting rights.>

On Tohti:

Teng Biao writes in The Guardian that the guy sent down for life actually deserves the Nobel. Here is the background.

Nicholas Bequelin writes in the NYT that the treatment of Tohti will radicalise more Uighurs. This is your key piece of analysis.

English translation of Chang Ping article trying to find logic in the treatment of Ilham Tohti. See also the translated extracts from Tohti’s statement after sentencing, below.

Ilham Tohti’s statement after sentencing in Chinese. Here are some heart-rending extracts in English:

<My outcries are for our people and, even more, for the future of China.

Before entering prison, I kept worrying I wouldn’t be able to deal with the harshness inside. I worried I would betray my conscience, career, friends and family. I made it!

The upcoming life in prison is not something I’ve experienced, but it will nonetheless become our life and my experience. I don’t know how long my life can go on. I have courage; I will not be as fragile as that. If you hear news that I mutilated or killed myself, you can be certain it is made-up.

After seeing the judgment against me, contrary to what people may think, I now think I have a more important duty to bear.

Even though I have departed, I still live in anticipation of the sun and the future. I am convinced that China will become better, and that the constitutional rights of the Uighur people will, one day, be honored.

Peace is a heavenly gift to the Uighur and Han people. Only peace and good will can create a common interest.

I wear my shackles twenty-four hours a day, and was only allowed physical exercise for three hours out of eight months. My cell mates are eight sentenced Han prisoners. These are fairly harsh conditions. However, I count myself fortunate when I look at what has happened to my students and other Uighurs accused of separatist crimes. I had my own Han lawyer whom I appointed to defend me, and my family was allowed to attend my trial. I was able to say what I wanted to say. I hope that, through my case, rule of law in Xinjiang can improve, even if it is only a baby step.

After yesterday’s sentencing, I slept better than I ever did in the eight months (of my detention.) I never realized I had this in me. The only thing is don’t tell my old mother what happened. Tell my family to tell her that it’s only a five-year sentence. Last night, in the cell next door Parhat [student of Tohti’s] slammed himself against the door and cried out loud. I heard the sound of shackles, nonstop, as they were taken to interrogations. Maybe my students have been sentenced too.

(To his wife): My love, for the sake of our children, please be strong and don’t cry! In a future not too far away, we will be in each other’s arms once more. Take care of yourself! Love, Ilham.>

Only in Chinese on Hong Kong:

Wen Wei Po, Beijing mouthpiece in Hong Kong, says that Hong Kong student organiser Joshua Wong has received training from <black hands> in the US navy. I understand there is lots of this stuff doing the rounds in the official press.

Update, 29 September:

Well, it’s game on after a weekend of student-led confrontations with the police. Parts of HK island (Admiralty, Causeway Bay) are at a standstill, but Central still functioning. Speculation that Xi Jinping is going to can CY Leung, try to buy off the student leaders with small gestures. A talk-first strategy worked well with both Tiananmen in 1989 and more recently with the Falunggong protests in Beijing. But once you have lulled protesters into a false sense of security in HK, it is not so easy to send in secret police to round up the organisers, let alone send in troops. This is a whole new ball game for the CPC…

Here are the early instructions from the Propaganda Dept to mainland media outlets about handling information on the Hong Kong protests, courtesy of China Digital Times:

<All websites must immediately clear away information about Hong Kong students violently assaulting the government and about “Occupy Central”. Promptly report any issues. Strictly manage interactive channels, and resolutely delete harmful information. This [directive] must be followed precisely. (September 28, 2014)

各网站对香港学生暴力冲击政府和“占中”相关信息一定要立即清理,有问题及时报告。严格管好互动栏目,坚决删除有害信息。要严格执行。[Original text]>

At the end of this SCMP story on the protests is a 9-minute embedded video interview with student leader Joshua Wong (you will have to do some kind of registration to access this). It is well worth watching. Not only Beijing, but the HK tycoons, have a very serious young man on their hands.

28 September 2014

28 September 2014

HK 280914b

28 September 2014

28 September 2014

Cordon created by police around Tamar/Admiralty, keeping protests out of central for now. 28 September

Cordon created by police around Tamar/Admiralty, keeping protests out of central for now. 28 September

 

Weekend reading: abuse of state power special

August 25, 2013

It has been a bumper week for abuse of state power. Here are some of the highlights:

Bradley Manning goes down for 35 years. On the watch of the ‘liberal’ president, Barack Obama. The FT (sub needed) argues that Manning got off lightly and may get parole in 10 years. The Guardian takes a different view on the proportionality of Manning’s sentence, a position closer to mine.

While the reaction pieces are being penned, Manning expresses a desire for hormone treatment to assist in a desired gender reassignment. Federal prisons offer this, military ones do not. Manning has asked that she [sic] be referred to henceforth as Chelsea, with the former name Bradley reserved only for letters to the the confinement facility at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. There are worse ways to spend half an hour than writing him/her a letter of support, so why not do so?.

From, for me, the damaged but well-meaning Manning to the thoughtful, lucid and brave Edward Snowden. In the UK, Alan Rusbridger, Guardian editor, reveals threats from the British government, securocrats, and indirectly from David Cameron himself, to pre-emptively shut down further reporting of the Snowden cache using British legal powers of pre-emption.

It is depressing to read how the poodles in the UK government told their bosses in Washington that Guardian journalist Glen Greenwald’s partner David  Miranda would be detained at Heathrow, how Met police say they checked they were using anti-terrorism legislation correctly and how the police reckon they were procedurally perfect. Having taken the call from the lickspittle Brits, Washington then moved to distance itself from the Miranda detention and the seizure of his possessions, saying it wouldn’t happen in the US. As the Economist points out (sub needed), the anti-terrorism legislation under which Miranda was detained was established for the police to ascertain if a person “is or has been concerned in the commission, preparation or instigation of acts of terrorism”. To use such legislation against journalists is grotesque.

Over to China, where 70 policemen take the unusual risk of appending their thumbprints to a denunciation of the acting president of the Shanghai High Court who, they say, has been engaged in massive long-term corruption including stealing several tons of alcohol from the police booze budget each year. Court president Cui Yadong was already feeling the heat after senior Shanghai judges were recently captured on video cavorting with prostitutes. The video of the judges has had over 4 million hits.

Separately in China, the New York Times discusses ‘Document number 9’ and the alleged ‘seven subversive currents’ at large in the Chinese nation. Per my recent blog about Xi Jinping, we are starting to get more visibility on the new Chinese president and what we are seeing is not pretty. Xi’s evolving proto-Maoist approach to politics provides the background to the trial on corruption and abuse of power charges of fellow princeling Bo Xilai, which started this week. Bo was the person who invented the ‘New Red’ school of modified Maoist populism when he was running Chongqing. As Xi and pals move to crush him, the irony and hypocrisy are not lost on John Garnaut in Foreign Policy.

Here in Italy, meanwhile, we are enjoying a peculiarly Italian twist on the abuse of state power. Silvio Berlusconi, having been definitively condemned for a felony for the first time, has opted for an attack on state power that recalls, for me, Italy’s fascist past (much more so than the claims, which I previously dismissed on this site, that Beppe Grillo is proto fascist). Over the Ferragosto holiday Sil promised a programme of direct action on Italy’s beaches, with his supporters leafleting holiday makers who would otherwise be trying to catch a rest. The focus of Sil’s campaign is not so much a proposal for structural reform of the judiciary, or indeed enforcement of existing norms (which would be half the job done already), but instead a direct attack on magistrates and judges as a species. The strategy has more than a whiff of hoped-for intimidation.

Here is a lead story (in Italian) from Berlusconi’s Il Giornale during the holiday. Although the article was on the front page, it has no news content, and comprises a simple frontal assault on the judiciary, likening its perceived efforts to ‘attain political power’ over the nation to Mao Zedong’s Long March. The connection with Maoism/communism is established in the first sentence. Italy, we learn, does not have a mundanely inefficient legal system to be improved by systemic change, but an extremist, personal, visceral political conspiracy against the Italian people (to wit, Sil and his businesses).

Here are some current icons from Berlusconi’s PDL/FI site:

banner-forzasilvio pdl-logo 20ANNI-DI-CACCIA-UOMO 995980_621688441198598_1936708951_n 998453_620420304658745_378895156_n 998913_622166501150792_278588033_n 1097945_620420421325400_707118344_n slide-1-638

The manner in which Berlusconi’s personal interests, those of the Mediaset group he controls, and national politics are conflated is bewildering for anyone from the First World. But of course this is not the First World. Next month Sil will relaunch Forza Italia (FT, sub needed), his original political movement named for a football chant (in the country that now boasts the worst record of football violence and racism in western Europe). ‘Ancora in campo’ / Back on the Field is the new tag line.

To me the strategy looks more than a little fascistic, involving as it does an attack on the institutions of the state and promises of more direct action. However, as the holidays wind down I suspect that we won’t see a proto-fascist movement take hold in Italy. Instead we will see business as usual.  The main evidence of Sil’s promised campaign of direct action so far (the plan on the beaches described here in the FT, sub needed) is a few Forza Italia militants in Rome (here telling journalists they have not been paid to march, that they are ‘spontaneous volunteers’ and that they have ‘just come for Him [Sil]’) and a pisspoor little plane dragging a bit of superannuated toilet paper above a few holidaymakers. ‘Forza Italia, Forza Sil’, I think it says.

I don’t want to do you down Sil, but I’m not sure you’ve really got the fascist cojones for this thing….

Forza Italia sul ferragosto 2013

Meanwhile, my own experience with abuse of state power occurs when I stop at Sasso, the bar on the river on the way to Citta di Castelllo. Despite the fact that there were few people around when I stopped, and lots of safe parking available, a carabinieri police car was parked across the zebra crossing that leads to the children’s playground, with two wheels outside the white parking line and hence well into the road. Thinking this a bit slack, even by Italian police standards, I took a photo on my phone. Walking into the bar, I found two carabinieri eating cream buns. I bought a small bottle of cold water and went outside to drink it in the sun.

While I was doing this, it seems one of regular clients at the bar told the carabinieri I had taken a photo. One of the carabinieri came over and demanded ‘a document’. Of course, I said, handing him my EU photo driving licence. He took it away and wrote down all the details, resting on the boot of his car. Then he came back and said: ‘I have taken down all your details because you took a photo.’ I replied: ‘Yes I did take a photo because of the way you parked.’ The policeman responded: ‘You have no idea what business we are engaged on here.’ I resisted the urge to reply: ‘It looked like you were engaged in eating cream buns.’ Both policemen were standing over me, not completely in my face, but close enough to make me feel uncomfortable.

The officers then made a series of threats:

1. ‘We have your details. If that photo is published on the Internet [he only seemed concerned about the Internet] we know who you are.’ I replied that I have no problem with them knowing who I am.

2. [from the second carabinieri, thinner and younger]: ‘That is a MILITARY vehicle. Do you understand?’ I replied that I am fully aware that the carabinieri is a para-military force.

3. The first officer mentioned seizing my phone (the verb he employed was ‘sequestrare’). I remained impassive, just looked him in the eye. There were a few people around the bar (maybe 8), plus the female boss, whom I have known for years. He didn’t take the phone in the end, just saying: ‘Get rid of that photo or I will seize your phone.’ I said nothing.

2013-08-16 11.56.41

At this point the policemen appeared to run out of threats. They went back to their car, got in it, turned around, and followed me to Citta di Castello, before turning off in the direction of the police station. Should I complain to the justice system or should I launch a proto-fascist programme of direct action? Thankfully this dilemma no longer presents itself. I now live in Cambridge. I think I’ll just go home.

More:

If you would like to harass people on street corners until Silvio is let off his felony, you should be able to sign up at the site below. (Latest talk is of a general amnesty for convicted felons facing up to as much as four years’ jail time. This would be a triple triumph — saving money spent on prisons, reducing Italy’s huge trial waiting lists, and getting Sil off his fraud sentence (plus other sentences that may soon follow). The only downside would be to put a few thousand crooks, some of them violent, back on the streets. What is not to like?)

ForzaSilvio.it

Holiday reading and viewing: booze, race, nationalism

July 23, 2013

English beach

 

Since I am sort of on holiday this week, I have decided that everybody else should be too. So here is weekend reading re-dressed as holiday reading.

 

1. First up, to get us started, a great discussion of the role of alcohol, and of alcohol addiction, in writing.

Next, the serious stuff.

Here are three articles on questions of race and nationalism.

2a. Orville Schell and John Delury offer a thoughtful piece about China’s need to move on from the narrative of national humiliation that the country’s schools and politicians have fed the population ever since 1949 (and indeed longer in the case of early converts to the communist party’s cause).

2b. In the United States, Barak Obama can no longer avoid speaking out about the Trayvon Martin case.

2c. Philip Stephens in the FT (sub needed) reflects on the mindless racism of Italian politics, but ends with his ideas that just maybe Gianni Letta represents change. Would that it were so!

3. Third, a near miss. Gideon Rachman in the FT (sub needed) has a thoughtful piece on Putin’s Russia but fails to nuance it with what Putin’s government is doing to put Russia back on an economic development path — in essence, reining in the oligarchs and bringing cash flows from national mineral assets back under public control. Putin may be a revolting man, and yet may also be a revolting man whose time has come.

4. Finally, a heartening curiosity. Teach First seems to be working. It is now Britain’s single biggest recruiter. So it turns out that smart people often do care, and don’t reflexively sell their souls to a law firm or investment bank.

 

Mutual society robber barons

July 16, 2013

I have had an account at the Nationwide Building Society in the UK for 30 years. I believe that mutual societies offer the best way to serve the retail banking needs of ordinary citizens, and that they could and should do more to provide a working capital lending function for industry. I also believe that Lloyds and RBS, most of the equity in which belongs to the public as a result of the global financial crisis, should be mutualised. Sadly, no one in politics has the cojones to propose this.

Nationwide is the biggest building society in the UK, but the people who run it don’t think much like mutual society types. Mostly they impersonate bankers. Right now they are writing down hundreds of millions of pounds of bad loans from their speculation in commercial real estate activity pre-2008. Commercial real estate is a notoriously cyclical sector in which a mutual society has no business playing with its members’ money. The management is only able to pay off this folly because of the state’s provision of nearly free funds via quantitative easing, a policy that will have a fiscal cost for the whole of British society down the road when the Bank of England sells for less the bonds it has bought for more. However the people who run Nationwide are so gormless, or so self-serving, that they believe the profits that QE makes possible reflect their management genius (they being the same people who lost billions in commercial realestate speculation).

So the top boys and girls are paying themselves millions of pounds a year and jacking up their bonuses (details here). They run a bonus structure that operates over periods of 12 months and 36 months when banking cycles in the post-war era have been more like 10-15 years. Are they stupid, or just greedy? I hope they are just stupid.

Whichever, in the Nationwide AGM whose voting closes on the 22nd, I am voting against the remuneration report and the whole miserable lot of them. If you have a Nationwide account I would urge you to consider doing the same thing. If you vote online, do NOT use their immoral and deceptive ‘Quick Vote’ button which lets the chairman vote for you. The chairman, Geoffrey Howe (no relation), trousers £300,000 just for chairing the board. If you have read Asian Godfathers, you will be interested to know he is also chairman of Jardine Lloyd Thompson, which is the modern incarnation of the insurance business of the Keswick/Jardine godfather family of shafting minority shareholder fame…

Nationwide on your side

Weekend reading and viewing

July 13, 2013

1. First up, a farewell piece from Evan Osnos, China correspondent of the New Yorker. All about his poet bin-man friend.

A BILLION STORIES

POSTED BY 
Osnos-qi-290.jpg
In my neighborhood, near the Lama Temple, the men and women in fluorescent orange jumpsuits work for the district sanitation department. Many are migrant workers from the countryside; they sweep the alleys, clean the public restrooms, and collect the trash. Some wear straw farmers’ hats that cast a shadow across their faces, and, I admit, the matching uniforms make it difficult for me to keep them straight. I don’t know if there are three of them or thirty.
One afternoon not long ago, I was chatting with my next-door neighbor, a retiree named Huang Wenyi—a proud Beijinger, born and raised—when one of the sweepers in an orange jumpsuit wandered by. He had tousled hair, sun wrinkles around his eyes, and a smile of jumbled teeth. He approached and pointed to a gray flagstone at our feet. “Can you see the emperor on that rock?” the sweeper asked.
I thought I’d misheard. He said, “I can see an image of the emperor right there on that rock.”
Huang and I looked at the rock and back at the sweeper. Huang was not interested. “What are you bullshitting about?” he asked. “You have no idea what you’re talking about.”
The sweeper smiled and asked, “Are you saying you think I’m not a cultured man?”
“What I’m saying,” Huang said, “is that you’re not making sense.”
The sweeper gave him a look, and turned, instead, to face me. “I can look at anything, and pull the essence from it,” he said. “It doesn’t matter how ordinary something is; in my eyes, it becomes a treasure. Do you believe me?”
Huang was irritated: “Old man, I’m trying to have a chat with our foreign friend here. Can you not disturb us, and go back to your work?”
The sweeper kept talking—faster now, about ancient Chinese poetry, and the great modern writer Lu Xun—some of it too fast, and the references too obscure, for me to understand. He sounded somewhere between interesting and bonkers. Huang had had enough, and he poked fun at the man’s countryside accent. “Come back after you’ve learned to speak Beijing dialect,” he said.
Under his breath, the sweeper said, “As long as it’s a dialect of human beings, it’s legitimate.” But Huang didn’t hear him. He’d waved him away and wandered into his house.
I introduced myself. The sweeper’s name was Qi Xiangfu. He was from Jiangsu Province, and he said he had come to Beijing three months ago. Why did you come, I asked.
“To explore the realm of culture,” he said grandly.
“What kind of culture?”
“Poetry, mainly. Ancient Chinese poetry. During the Tang Dynasty, when poetry was the best, every poet wanted to come to Chang’an,” he said, invoking the name of the ancient capital, the predecessor to Beijing. “I wanted a bigger stage,” he said. “It doesn’t matter whether I succeed or fail. I’m here. That’s what matters.”
It was getting late; before I went inside, Qi said he had competed in poetry competitions. “I won the title of ‘Super King of Chinese Couplets.’ ” In his spare time, he had taken to hosting an online forum about modern Chinese poetry. “You can go online and read about me,” he said.
That night, I typed his name into the Web, and there he was: Qi Xiangfu, the Super King of Chinese Couplets. In the photo, he was handsomely dressed in a bow tie and a jacket; he looked young and confident. Chinese poems are hard for me to understand, and many of his, especially, were impenetrably weird. But I appreciated some moments of grace: “Earth knows the lightness of our feet,” he wrote. “We meet each other there / Between heaven and earth.”
To my surprise, the more I searched about Qi Xiangfu, the more I found of a life lived partly online. He once wrote a short memoir, in which he described himself in the third person, with the formality usually reserved for China’s most famous writers. He wrote that his father died young, and Qi was raised by his uncle. He wrote, of himself, “The first time Qi read Mao’s poem ‘The Long March,’ he resolved that Mao would be the teacher to show him the way. Later, he studied the poetry of Li Bai, Du Fu, Su Dongpu, Lu You, and others, and he made a promise to himself: Become a master of literature.”
He described the first time he ever presented one of his poems to a large group—it was played on a speaker at a construction site—and he described a bus trip in which he met, as he put it, “a girl who sympathized.” They married and it “ended his life of vagrancy.” There were hints of trouble in his life—at one point, he wrote a plea for donations, saying, “Alas, Comrade Qi is having a difficult time”—but something in the spirit of his online persona captivated me.
So much of it was impossible just a few years ago: the journey to the city, the online identity, the interior life so at odds with the image he projected to the world. When I first studied in China, seventeen years ago, the Internet was only a distant rumor. It had reached China two years earlier, but hardly anyone had access. When I brought a modem from the U.S., and tried to plug it into my dorm-room wall in Beijing, the machine emitted a sickly popping sound and never stirred again.
When I moved to Beijing, in 2005, to write, I was accustomed to hearing the story of China’s transformation told in vast, sweeping strokes—involving one fifth of humanity, and great pivots of politics and economics. But, over the next eight years, some of the deepest changes in the lives around me have been intimate and perceptual, buried in daily rhythms that are easy to overlook. A generation ago, foreigners writing about China marvelled most at the sameness of it all. Chairman Mao was the “Emperor of the Blue Ants,” as a memorable book title had it. But in my years in China, I have been seized most of all by the sense that the national narrative, once an ensemble performance, is splintering into a billion stories.
Living in China at this moment, the stories bombard you with such fantastical vividness that you can’t help but write them down and hope to make sense of them later. Writing about China, in The New Yorker, for the past five years, I’ve tried to capture something of this age, to grab a few of these stories out of the air before they slip by. The complexities of individual lives blunt the impulse to impose a neat logic on them, and nobody who stays here for some time remains certain about too much for too long. To impose order on the changes, we seek refuge, of a kind, in statistics. In my years here, the number of airline passengers nationwide doubled; sales of personal computers and cell phones tripled. The length of the Beijing subway quadrupled. But the longer I stayed, the less those impressed me than the dramas that I could never quantify at all.
On Sunday, my wife, Sarabeth, and I are flying out. I’ll be on leave for the next couple of months, wrapping up a book about a few individuals I’ve come to know in China. It will be published next spring, and I’ll be saying more about that later. I’ll resume writing for the magazine this fall, based in Washington, D.C. China is not leaving my blood stream; I’ll be back to write pieces, and, in between, I’ll be writing at Daily Comment and elsewhere about how China looks from afar.
Since we launched this blog, in January of 2009, I’ve written about five hundred posts. This will be the last for a while, and I want to thank you for visiting over the years. There will be much more to come on China on this site, and in the magazine, so I won’t pretend to sum things up. For now, I’ll mention only the fact that returns to me more often, perhaps, than any other: never in modern history has China been more prosperous and functional and connected with the world—and yet, it is the only country in the world with a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in prison. Contradictions like that have been the essence of this moment.
After I met the street sweeper Qi Xiangfu, I started bumping into him frequently. We swapped phone numbers, and he would send me a poem, now and then, by text message. He typed out the characters on his phone, with the help of a magnifying glass to aid his eyes. Many of his poems were heavy with Communist fervor; others were oracular and strange. But I sympathize with anyone trying to make sense of this place in writing, and I admired his persistence. “I’ve experienced every kind of coldness and indifference from people,” he told me once, “but I’ve also given myself knowledge, all the way up to the university level. I don’t have a diploma. People look down on me when they see me.”
A few weeks ago, Qi told me he had been reassigned to the sanitation department in another part of town; he said he would come back when he could. The last time I saw him, he wasn’t wearing his uniform; he was in street clothes—a crisp white shirt and a black jacket—on his way to see his daughter who worked at a restaurant nearby. He had a book under his arm: “Ten Contemporary Authors of Prose.” For the first time, I saw the two personae, online and real-world, in one. What inspires you, I once asked him.
“When I write,” he said, “anything becomes material. In life, I must be practical, but when I write, it is up to me.”
Photograph, of Evan Osnos and Qi Xiangfu, courtesy of Osnos.
2. Next, a bit of Australian fun. A Kath and Kim movie came out last year. It got terrible reviews, so don’t go see it. However this appearance on Sunrise is pretty funny. Seems like good background to the Ashes series.
3. Next: Oh. Bama! Just to keep piling pressure on the liberal president, here is a Guardian piece about the sale of ambassadorial positions. Sort of Lloyd George goes to Washington. You might want to watch Lou Reed talking about Snowden and Obama again, (if only to watch the put-down of the obsequious female journalist at the end).
4. Now something serious. Christopher Wood, one of the best (perhaps the best) equity analyst in east Asia, doesn’t like his weekly missive reposted. So I am just going to quote a couple of bullets about the income distribution effects of the QE approach to stabilising the global financial crisis. I was banging on about the same thing soon after the crisis hit in 2010 and the QE started:
<The practical way unconventional monetary policies work is to lead to ever more extreme wealth distribution. Wealth distribution would have become much less extreme as a consequence of the 2008 crisis if losses had been imposed on creditors to bust financial institutions in line with capitalist principles, as opposed to the favoured ‘bailout’ approach pursued for the most part by Washington. The ‘great reckoning’ has been deferred to another day as the speculative classes have continued to game the system by resort to carry trades actively encouraged by the Fed and other central bankers. The leverage taken on in such trades is highly risky because of the underlying deflationary trend.>
5. More serious and interesting stuff is Philip Stephens in the FT (sub needed) parsing the Anglo Saxon-created disaster story that is the Middle East.
6. Looking at the Stephens’ canon, I see a piece from June (sub needed) making the case for shutting down the UK Treasury. It would save money and get rid of dangerous incompetents whose follies we, the taxpayers, must finance. I would just add that in shutting the Treasury to save money, government could also shut the Foreign Office, another black hole of self-regarding incompetence. George Osborne is right that we should not waste money. Mainly on people he went to school and university with.
7. Finally, this looks like something useful to do if any UK university students read this blog:
Hi there, My name’s Jonathan Goggs – I’m from an organisation called Team Up, who are establishing a student committee at Cambridge for 2013/14. I would very much appreciate it if you, or one of your colleagues, could circulate the following blurb into an email to all students in the business school, including the enclosed attachments as well. Do let me know if there are any questions from students by responding to this email, or copying me in. “Team Up is passionate about improving social mobility and transforming the prospects of bright young people and we are looking for outstanding university students from Cambridge to join one of our accredited leadership programmes next year. You will be trained in the highly sought-after professional skills to make a genuine difference and empower young people in your community to academic excellence. We believe in developing our university students to foster the skills they need to tackle the UK’s biggest social problem (social mobility) and secure exceptional careers. That’s why, once we’ve processed your application and conducted a short interview, we’ll be running master classes and networking opportunities, in partnership with leading businesses and charities, to give you the tools to lead, inspire and excel. The programme runs for 20 weeks, alongside your degree, and an overview of the year is attached, together with descriptions of the roles you can apply for. Last year our programme partners were Teach First and Bank of America Merrill Lynch and next year we will be partnering with even more organisations in management consultancy, education, social enterprise and finance. Places are competitive, so early applications are encouraged. Over the past two years we’ve received over 2,000 applications and some incredible student feedback – 9 out of 10 students said they enjoyed the programme. At Team Up, we think it’s a tragedy that so many young people are still disqualified from leading universities like Cambridge and fulfilling careers, because they come from low-income, socially disadvantaged backgrounds. If you think the way we do, we’d love to hear from you. To apply, click here.” Kind regards, — Jonathan Goggs Programme Officer | Team Up 18 Victoria Park Square, Bethnal Green, LONDON | E2 9PF E: jonathan.goggs@teamup.org.uk | W: www.teamup.org.uk

Weekend reading and viewing

June 21, 2013

Just started watching The Bridge, but I imagine the whole world has seen that by now. Not too bad. Below is the first 14 mins, enough time to decide if you like it.

What journalists deserve when they ask incredibly stupid questions. We’ve all been there as hacks. But this woman really cops it from Lou Reed. An interviewee after my own heart. See the very end.

Martin Wolf’s piece on Greece (sub needed) stuck in my mind this week.

The death of Michael Hastings in a car crash made me read his remarkable Rolling Stone story about Stan McChrystal in Afghanistan. It was the end of McChrystal in Afghanistan. He is now reduced to speaking with me at a conference in Wisconsin next week.

Booked my tix for the Young Lions, below, in the Django Rheinhardt festival in NY next week. What is not to like?

Only thing you can really say against them is that the original guy had two less (functioning) fingers

Just in:

US government files sealed complaint against Snowden. Britain’s government and GCHQ are mindless lickspittles (again); with their own, non-existent moral bottom line.

The Snowden White House petition will go through 100,000 signatures today, 22 June. If you are an American, sign this thing. You’ll have something that makes you proud to tell your kids.

Obama (below) does a good job of defending what has been going on (though he weasles around the hard bits). But in the end, he is wrong. Because he is defending a means of opposing terrorism that rests on intrusion into privacy and the support of despotic allies, with money and guns, instead of solving the problems that create terrorism in the first place. He needs to break out of this way of thinking. If he wants to be the greatest American president since Truman — and he should want that — he needs to go back and look at the way in which the United States headed off insurgencies in the 1945-52 period by supporting land reform programmes and tackling the root cause of poverty and anger in the third world. Think bigger. Drones and snooping are not the stuff of a great American leader.

The full Johnson, No.1

February 16, 2013

Who else but Ian Johnson to go see this character up a tower block in Chengdu. Want to feel better about your life? Find out how to send Huang Qi some money, and send some.

 

Ni hao, Kafka

August 18, 2011

Just before Europe blows, here are three things worth reading that go to China’s lack of institutional development.

 

A.

The first is the latest on blogger Wang Lihong, detained since March, and subject of Do something useful No.1. That post contains all kinds of links you can follow to learn more about and to support her case.

Wang’s ‘trial’ took place on 12 August and involved some nice touches. It was declared an open trial, but requests to attend were refused. The courtroom provided only five seats for observers. Two were filled with uniformed cops. Two were filled with goons. And one was taken by Wang’s brother. According to the lawyer, when Wang or her lawyer spoke, the judge interrupted, repeatedly. Two witnesses for the defence were detained en route to the trial by police, one in Beijing (and was then held in a illegal jail) and the other at an airport in Fujian province. Perhaps 20 Wang supporters were detained outside the courthouse…

The below is from From Chinese Human Rights Defenders.

Wang Lihong’s Trial Marred by Procedural Violations; At Least 20 Supporters Taken Away by Police 

The trial of human rights activist Wang Lihong (王荔蕻) for “creating a disturbance” in Beijing on August 12 took just two-and-a-half hours and was beset by violations of the Criminal Procedure Law, according to one of her defense attorneys, Han Yicun (韩一村). Hundreds of people—supporters, uniformed and plainclothes police, journalists, and diplomats—gathered outside the courthouse. At least 20 of Wang’s supporters, including a petitioner in a wheelchair, reportedly were taken away by police before the start of the trial. The presiding judge stated that the verdict would be announced at a later date.

After the trial, Han Yicun spoke in detail about how the proceedings were procedurally flawed. Han said that he was hindered in his defense arguments since prosecutors were given more time during extensive cross-examination of Wang and because he was frequently interrupted by the judge. He noted that Wang was unable to complete her final defense statement since the judge interrupted her many times as well. In his written defense statement arguing for Wang’s innocence, Han described the prosecution of Wang as political persecution rather than a legal proceeding, and argued for the necessity of judicial independence in China to ensure due process and the protection of citizens’ civil rights.

There was a large police presence outside the courthouse; one eyewitness counted approximately 20 police vehicles. Petitioners and other supporters chanted slogans or held signs in support of Wang, and some shared information about injustices they had experienced. Around the entrance, police cordoned off an area that included both officers and several foreign journalists, and a large number of national security officers and plainclothes police kept close watch over the large crowd.

Although the court had declared the trial open to the public, virtually all applications to attend the proceedings had been rejected, including from foreign diplomats as well as petitioners and activists from all around the country. Han noted after the proceedings that the courtroom was extremely small—with far too little space to accommodate the number of people who wished to observe the hearing—and that the court had essentially created the atmosphere of a “closed” trial. Only five seats in the courtroom were designated for observers, but two of them were occupied by uniformed police and two by plainclothes police; the other one was occupied by Wang’s son, Qi Jianxiang (齐健翔).

In the days and weeks leading up to the trial, Chinese authorities had warned potential witnesses not to testify and restricted the movement of several other individuals, most notably defendants from the “Fujian Three” netizens’ criminal defamation case from last year. (Wang’s trial for “creating a disturbance” stemmed from her participation in protests outside the sentencing hearing for these netizens in April 2010 in Fuzhou City, Fujian Province.) In the evening of August 11, Wu Huaying (吴华英), after eluding Fujian authorities and making her way to Beijing, was seized by interceptors and then held at the Duxinyuan Guest House, a “black jail,” along with three other petitioners from Fujian. Also on August 11, national security officers in Fuzhou prevented another one of the “Fujian Three,” You Jingyou (游精佑), from taking a flight to Beijing.

 

B.

John Kamm gets the full treatment visiting Dongguan Prison

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Here’s a new piece from the blog of veteran China human rights campaigner John Kamm about Xu Zerong. Xu, a Harvard- and Oxford-trained academic specialist on the Korean war, was sent down for 13 years for ‘leaking state secrets’ in relation to his research. He thought various documents related to Chinese tactics in the 1950-3 conflict were legally in the public domain after 40 years. The People’s Liberation Army and the judge had different  ideas. Still, sounds from the Xu interview at the end like Kamm managed to get him into some of the more cushty Chinese prisons…

Xu Zerong: With American Attention … All Prisoners Benefit

In recent years, visits to Chinese prisons made by representatives of foreign governments and non-governmental organizations have been reduced to a trickle. This is due in part to the reduction of Sino-Western bilateral rights dialogues and the elimination of visits to custodial centers that these dialogues once fostered. Consular visits to individual prisoners aside, the International Center for Prison Studies visited prisons in Anhui and Hubei in March 2009; Dui Hua visited the Beijing Juvenile Detention Center in May 2010; and an international humanitarian organization visited two Chongqing prisons in the spring of 2011. No United Nations officials have been allowed into Chinese prisons since Manfred Nowak, the special rapporteur on torture, returned from a visit in late 2005 to condemn its palpable “climate of fear.”

Though dwindling, visits by foreigners to Chinese prisons play an important role in ensuring the humane treatment of prisoners. In a recent interview with Hong Kong’s Open Magazine, Xu Zerong discussed how he ended up serving 11 years in prison and how overseas intervention improved his life in custody.

In November 2002, Dui Hua Executive Director John Kamm visited Dongguan Prison in Guangdong Province. A few months later, Xu was transferred there to serve his sentence for “trafficking in state secrets.” The following is an excerpt from the Open Magazine interview detailing prison conditions and the impact of international concern on the treatment Xu received.

Writing Got Him Through the Prison Years

Cai Yongmei, Open Magazine, August 6, 2011

[Translated Excerpt]

問:與花都相比如何?

Open Magazine: How was [Dongguan Prison] compared to Huadu [National Security Detention Center]*?

徐澤榮:好多了,在花都關在只有一兩個人的牢房中,現在一間牢房有十至十二人,有人說話。東莞監獄是廣東的模範監獄,管理比較文明。這也有美國人的功 勞。中美對話基金會的康原(John Kamm),於一九九九年十一月來參觀過,由司法部外事處的人陪同,監獄小報有報導。有了美國人的關注,監獄環境得到改善,犯人都是受益者。

Xu Zerong: Much better. At Huadu I was held in a cell with just one or two people. [At Dongguan] each cell had 10 to 12 people, so there were people to talk to. Dongguan Prison is a model prison in Guangdong Province. Management is relatively civilized. This is also to the Americans’ credit. The Dui Hua Foundation’s John Kamm visited [Dongguan Prison] in November 1999 [sic] along with officials from the Ministry of Justice foreign affairs bureau; this was reported in the prison newspaper. With American attention, prison conditions improved, and all prisoners benefited.

問:康原對你的案子一直很關注。

OM: Kamm remained very concerned about your case.

徐澤榮:是的,這年十一月我從東莞監獄調到環境更好的廣州西村監獄,我認為是康原幫的忙。廣州西川與東莞這兩個監獄都被評為廣東部級文明監獄,由於西村 是廣東勞改局直接領導,生活上對犯人更要文明一些,加班也沒有東莞厲害。在東莞由於勞動時間長,沒有時間寫東西,我要半夜起來寫。西村監獄十五個監區,一 個關香港人,一個關澳門台灣人,還有一個關外國人,但沒有西方人。我是關在大陸人的監區內。牢房中都有衛生間。一個緬甸人說感覺很好,好像是住賓館。○五 年二月還把我與老弱犯人關在一起,免於勞動,使我有時間寫東西,都是康原與當局交涉的結果。他還給我寄了五本書,是關於美國外交和國際關係這類,還收到他 一封短信。

XZR: Yes. In November of that year I was transferred from Dongguan Prison to Guangzhou Xicun Prison, which had even better conditions. I believe this was [due to] his help. Both the Guangzhou Xichuan [sic] and Dongguan prisons are considered Guangdong’s most civilized prisons. Because Guangdong’s prison administration bureau directly supervises Xicun [Prison], prisoners’ living conditions were even more civilized [there], and [mandatory] overtime labor was not as severe as in Dongguan. Because work hours were long in Dongguan, there was no time to write—I had to wake up in the middle of the night to write.

Xicun Prison has 15 cell blocks, one for Hong Kong people, one for Macanese and Taiwanese people, and one for foreigners, but there weren’t any Westerners. I was detained in the cell block for mainland Chinese. There were bathrooms in the cells. One Burmese said it felt nice, like staying in a guesthouse. In February 2005 I was even put together with weak and elderly** prisoners and waived from doing labor, giving me time to write. All of this was the result of Kamm’s negotiations with the authorities. He even sent me five books about things like US diplomacy and international relations. I also received a short letter from him.

問:你坐牢期間,海外對你的救援是否知道?

OM: When you were in prison, were you aware of the support you had overseas?

徐澤榮:我聽律師講到海外有人聲援我,聯署簽名。也有後來入獄的犯人說在香港電視上看過報導。我最為驚訝的是在廣州監獄收到美國硅谷寄給我的一張卡,有 八個人簽名,其中一位叫周鋒鎖,我覺得名字很熟悉,我查官方出的六四書《新中國大波瀾》,發現他是北京天安門學生領袖,心裡很震動。還收到國際筆會從美國 寄來的四封聖誕卡,也感到意外。你們獨立中文筆會頒獎給我,姪女也告訴我了 ,還把獎盃的照片交給了監獄方面。這些對我都是很大的鼓勵,知道在這個世界上有很多人不認為我是犯罪的。我真的是很感謝大家。

XZR: [My] lawyer told me that there were people overseas who were supporting me and signing a petition [on my behalf], and prisoners incarcerated afterward said they saw reports [on my case] on Hong Kong TV. The most surprising thing for me was when I was in Guangzhou Prison and received a card from Silicon Valley signed by eight people including someone named Zhou Fengsuo. The name sounded familiar so I looked in an official book on the June 4th incident, New China Review, and discovered that he was a student leader at Beijing’s Tiananmen. I was extremely moved.

I also received four Christmas cards sent from the United States by International PEN, which were unexpected. When your Independent Chinese PEN Center gave me an award, my niece told me and even gave the prison a photo of the trophy. All of this was of great encouragement to me, knowing that there are many people in this world who don’t think that I committed a crime. I am really very grateful to everyone.

*In the interview, Xu says Huadu National Security Detention Center was established in 1995 to house special operatives, political prisoners, and Guangzhou municipal officials ranking at or above deputy level. He said conditions at Huadu are better than at other detention centers, noting en suite air conditioners and televisions and good food.

**Prisoners age 55 and older are classified as elderly.

 

C.

Finally, an interview by the Quiet Canadian in the anorak. Pulitzer prize winning Ian Johnson interviews poet, book writer and serial reporter Liao Yiwu. Liao, currently in Berlin, is one of thousands of Chinese who are either explicitly or implicitly exiles (in his case the government has not actually torn his passport up). He says he’s saving his mum trips to prison bringing him food…

The interview is posted on the blog of the New York Review of Books.

‘I’m not interested in them; I wish they weren’t interested in me’: An Interview with Liao Yiwu

Amid the recent crackdown on dissidents by the Chinese government, the case of Liao Yiwu, the well-known poet and chronicler of contemporary China, is particularly interesting. For years, Liao’s work, which draws on extensive interviews with ordinary Chinese, has been banned by the authorities for its provocative revelations about everyday life. In early July, amid a worsening atmosphere for artists and intellectuals critical of the Chinese government, Liao fled to Germany via a small border crossing to Vietnam in Yunnan province.

Liao first came to prominence in 1989 when he recorded an extended stream-of-consciousness protest poem called “Massacre” about the Tiananmen Square crackdown. He was subsequently arrested and spent four years in prison, where he met the series of outcasts and misfits who became the protagonists of his first book on China’s underclass. Written in the form of questions and answers, these stories became symbolic vignettes about people from a range of offbeat and unusual professions or situations. Some of them were translated in The Paris Review in 2005, and they were collected and expanded in the 2008 book The Corpse Walker: Real Life Stories, China From the Bottom Up.

Now, one of Liao’s other three books, God is Red: The Secret Story of How Christianity Survived and Flourished in Communist China, is about to be published in the United States in September. It tells the story of Christian persecution in the early Communist era, mostly in minority areas of Yunnan province. He has also written a memoir of his four years in prison that has just been published in Germany to wide acclaim. His fourth book, on China’s new underclass, has yet to be published.

I recently spoke with Liao at Berlin’s Literaturhaus, where he easily blended in amid the tourists and would-be hipsters. His head clean-shaven, he appears younger than his 53 years, a short, powerful man who often lapsed into a thick, Sichuanese dialect. He talked about his decision to flee, his new book, and how he plans to continue his work from afar.

Ian Johnson: The Chinese newspaper Global Times said Liao Yiwu is not in exile. It said you’re just on holiday and that nowadays it’s not so strange for Chinese to go abroad for extended stays. They say your decision to go to Germany has to do with marketing your books. Are you really in exile?

Liao Yiwu: I never said I wanted to go into exile or flee. It’s just because if I didn’t my books wouldn’t get published. I guess I won’t go back for a while. I’m doing publicity for the prison book now, then I’ll go to the US for my Christianity book. Then Taiwan for the Chinese edition of the prison book. Then back to Germany, where I have a one-year DAAD fellowship in Berlin. So when that’s all over, I’ll see if they haven’t forgotten me.

What did the authorities tell you?

They said, “two books of yours can’t be published overseas.” One is the prison book. The other is the God book. They said both are unacceptable. So I talked with them and asked why. They asked me to sign a paper [promising not to publish]. They said these were “illegal cultural products.” They said these two books disclosed secrets.

Is political repression more severe than it has been in the past?

Yes, especially the first half of the year. Ahhh, I don’t know. I think it’s the government’s own problem. That call for a Jasmine Revolution. They took it so seriously but it was just something someone posted on the Internet. It didn’t exist, but after it was posted they came by all the time, asking and asking. No one had heard of it! They’re nervous.

My writing is illegal…I don’t know. I’m just writing something and now have broken their law. I don’t want to break their laws. I am not interested in them and wish they weren’t interested in me.

So why are they?

The prison book is pretty cruel. I was serving time in Chongqing. At one point they tortured me so much I smashed my head against the wall to try to kill myself. I passed out and then over the next few days the non-political prisoners came by and said, “Hey buddy, if you really want to kill yourself that’s a stupid way to do it. A better way is like this: you find a nail sticking out of the wall and smash your temple against it. It’s much more effective, believe us.” So this book is maybe more cruel than the others. The authorities said to me: “If you publish this book we’ll send you back to Chongqing.” There’s no way I’m going back there. That’s too terrifying. They said we don’t care about the Mao era. You can write about that. The 50s and 60s are okay.

But then the Christianity book should be okay. It’s mostly from that era.

Yes, but the religious question in China is so great that it’s also forbidden, especially the subject of Christianity. I didn’t consider this when I was writing it. Haha, if I had thought of that I wouldn’t have written it [laughs]. They say it’s illegal to publish it abroad. This is strange. It’s a secret if foreigners read it, but not if Chinese read it. So it’s a secret for Ian Johnson to read, but not for me [laughing].

Why did you write about Christians and not, say, Buddhists?

Me, I’m the kind of person who doesn’t have a definite plan. I had this opportunity to meet the Christians and it moved me so I did it.

How was it interviewing these Christians? You’re not a Christian, right?

It’s like this. I was in Yunnan trying to interview the last landlords of China, the ones who were persecuted in the early communist years. I met some people who told me about these Christians. I went to meet them. It was a really poor place. Unbelievably poor. No electricity, no roads, no telephone. We walked four or five hours to get to one village. But I thought this was so unbelievable. You’d get to a village and there’d be a church. Westerners had been there before, a century earlier, and built these churches. It was remarkable. They worked in these villages until 1949 when the Communists took over. The foreigners were expelled and a lot of the Christians killed. The stories are unbelievably cruel. In one case the father was executed and left on the side of the road. The family wasn’t allowed to pick up the corpse. When I heard this I cried.

What will you do in Germany? Your sources of information, your interviews—it’s all back in China.

There are too many stories about China! People say, “you won’t have anything to write about here,” but the problem is I can’t write them all. There are too many.

How do you work? Did you record the interviews?

In some of the other books, no. But in this case God is Red) I did. But when I write down their answers I try to make it sound as good as possible. I’m a writer so I want to use all my skill to write their stories.

How about the prison book? How did you remember all that?

I had a copy of [the classic Chinese novel] Romance of the Three Kingdoms and made tiny notes that I put in the book. It was really difficult, but in this way I was able to recover a lot of memories. These books are different. God is Red was difficult because I had to walk a lot of roads and eat a lot of bitterness, but I was glad to be able to write it. They were moving stories. But the prison book was difficult to write. It was painful.

And the fourth book is finished?

Yes, on the new underclass: some of them are unemployed, others simply don’t fit into society. But I’ve got more. I have seven or eight books I can write. I have a lot of material on me. I don’t lack material.

But from now on you can’t interview anyone, since you no longer live in China.

I’m already 53 years old. I’ve lived through a lot. The 1980s were a golden age for Chinese thought and literature. Then came 1989. Then came the reforms and the economic growth. No one thought the Communists would be so tough and strong. It’s caused all these waves of immigration. After they took over there was a big wave of immigration as people fled. Then after 1989 there was another wave of about 100,000 who left. Now there’s a new wave of people leaving, even though the economy is so good. At least among many artistic people it’s like this. You can’t do anything meaningful in China. If you return you have three choices: flee, sit in prison or shut up. I had to flee. Liu Xiaobo and Ai Weiwei weren’t able to flee but I was. It’s probably because I interviewed a lot of these underclass people so I understand how the police think. That allowed me to figure a way out. I have contacts in the underground.

Can you get used to living abroad? You don’t speak German or English.

Sure, communication is never a problem. I like Berlin. East Berlin has a lot of underground bars that remind me of China. There’s one street there with a lot of prostitutes. I’ve been there many times to observe and watch how different German prostitutes are from Chinese prostitutes. The Germans are more polite. If you don’t want to, they leave you alone. In China, several will fight over you.

Some people ask why you publish so much overseas.

I’d like to publish in China but since 2001 I haven’t been able to. In the 1990s it was difficult but then after 2001 nothing at all. There is a lot of illegal, underground publishing. Most is related to sex. A friend told me I’ve got some good news for you: your book on the underclass is competing with the sex books! That was funny. But the two books coming this year are the ones I most value. They are the most personal and have moved me the most.

Do you still have relatives back home?

Yes, my mother, brother and sister.

Did you tell them ahead of time that you were leaving?

No, you cannot. I was the only one who knew.

Can they understand?

[Sighs] Slowly they’ll understand. For example, if I’m arrested they have to deliver food to me in prison—it’s a burden for them [laughing]. All those trips to the prison [laughs]. I’ve spared them those trips …

Does your mother understand what you do, your writing?

She does, but she wishes I wasn’t mixed up in politics. But I’m not. I’m not interested in politics. I’m not like Liu Xiaobo. I didn’t write a Charter 08. I did sign it. The police asked me why I signed it and I said I don’t know, I just felt like it.

You seem to have a knack for finding sensitive issues.

Yeah, I don’t know. I don’t really mean to but somehow it happens.

August 15, 2011 11:15 a.m.

What they teach you in school these days

August 11, 2011

(Do something useful No.2)

Bloomberg has a great story today about academics from some of the leading US universities being banned for political reasons from China and their universities doing nothing, or less than nothing, about it.

If you are a student or graduate of one of these esteemed schools, you might like to write a letter to the top lady or gentleman of the institution, telling them how impressed you are.

If not, or in addition, send this on to someone connected with one of these institutions.

 

Lest I be accused of being unfair to China, here are a couple of links to a well-known cases of the US beating up on academics. 

Tariq Ramadan was banned from taking up a professorship at Notre Dame (Michigan) in the US by the Baby Bush administration.

Adam Habib was deported from the US upon arrival for alleged ‘links to terrorism’.

In the more distant past, writers including Graham Greene, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Pablo Neruda, and Doris Lessing were banned from America for their political views. Sill, there is no real moral equivalence (I believe) with China, from where thousands of Chinese people have now been exiled because of their beliefs.

Here is an article about Hong Kong and Macau ignoring their mandates to operate different ‘systems’ to PRC and policing academics in a similar way.

 

 


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