Archive for the ‘United States’ Category

Ferguson versus Perugia

November 27, 2014

Ferguson 2

 

 

 

 

 

Ferguson 3

Ferguson 4

 

 

 

 

 

 

As Ferguson, Missouri smoulders (literally and figuratively) following the decision not to indict a police officer who shot an unarmed black man dead, it is interesting to read Joshua Rozenberg’s opinion piece about the systemic failings of the arcane grand jury system that is still used in around 20 American states. It was a grand jury that decided not to indict the police officer.

What leaps out at me are the similarities between the functioning of grand juries (which only decide if there is a case to answer) and the functioning of Italy’s actual court system, as seen in the Sollecito-Knox satanic ritual murder trial in Perugia, about which I have blogged a great deal (see the ‘Italy to avoid’ tab).

The basics of a grand jury are that the prosecutor decides which witnesses to call and which witnesses to grant immunity from potential prosecution. There is no screening of jurors for potential bias and no objections can be raised about the choice of jurors. Proceedings, framed by the prosecutor who asks the questions (there is a theoretical right for jurors to ask questions at the end of testimony), are held entirely in secret and the grand jury decision is final. A longer outline of grand jury rules is here. Mostly it is the good ole boys of the south who still use grand juries, but a good number of supposedly more liberal states in the north-east do too; see here.

Well, if you look at the Sollecito-Knox satanic ritual murder trial in Perugia, several things that shocked me were: no capacity to screen jurors for bias, prosecution framed by the prosecuting magistrate (Giuliano Mignini) without any independent oversight, and jury deliberations framed and overseen in camera by the presiding judge rather than taking place independently. I am not saying this is a perfect analogue, but the excessive power granted to prosecutors and the lack of transparency do appear to be commonalities.

Of course in America the problem afflicts the indictment system in some states. In Italy it afflicts the entire national judicial process.

 

Later:

Here is another recent grand jury, in New York, failing to indict police officers over the death of a black man who was put in a choke-hold, and kept in one despite saying ‘I can’t breathe’. It was all captured on video. Coverage from the FT (sub needed). And here is coverage from The Guardian of protests in many US cities against the decision not to indict; again, the video of the police action is embedded.

Tits and bums

November 24, 2014

Oh, so now you’re paying attention.

In the past couple of weeks I have posted blogs that seemed to me important. About the Xi Jinping-Obama understanding on emissions that paves the way for a global deal to arrest climate change in Paris next year. And about Adair Turner’s argument that governments may have to print money to pay for fiscal expenditure and monetise part of their debts if we are to head off another asset bubble by raising interest rates while at the same time avoiding global economic depression.

Well, these momentous developments have garnered little more than the usual rate of traffic on this blog. So, looking at email addresses of the several hundred people who now subscribe to every single post (dear oh dear), I note that most of you are academics, researchers, money managers, NGO-types and ‘activists’. So it occurs that what you really want is a bit of gratuitous demi-porn to take the edge off your lives of monotonous intellectual mind-wrestling.

Fortunately I am in a position to indulge you. The peg is the recent APEC summit in Beijing, which was important not just for an apparent meeting of minds between the Chinese and US presidents, but also for an alleged pass made by the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, at Xi Jinping’s wife.

Personally, I don’t think there is much to it, although Putin is now officially a single man, which puts him (even more) firmly in the frame in terms of motive. However the extraordinary reaction of Chinese censors, who moved immediately to expunge any trace of Vlad’s let-me-get-your-coat-darling moment from the Chinese Interweb, reminds us that in Chinese Communist Party cultural terms Vlad was indeed on quite thin ice. Here, side by side, are the photo (similar to the one below) briefly posted by Chinese state news agency Xinhua and, to the right, the notice you got shortly after/still get at the same URL saying in Chinese that the page has been deleted.

Obama to Xi: 'Looks like Ukraine is not the only thing Vladimir wants to get into.'

Obama to Xi: ‘Looks like Ukraine is not the only thing Vladimir wants to get into.’

And here is a brief story from Foreign Policy about the whole incident, including a link to video if you really want more.

The Putin-Peng Liyuan (yes, she has a name) frisson got me thinking, as I am sure it has you, about the broader subject of global leaders hitting on other leaders, their wives and partners. So here, in no particular order, are some memorable moments I have been able to come up with:

 

1. Henry Kissinger’s ever-penetrating analysis. These must surely be among the most famous images of the genre, as Henry first enjoys a full frontal review of Lady Diana’s strategic assets, and then follows up from behind with a sly ass-check.

kissinger Di 1 kissinger Di 2

 

 

 

2. The Brezhnev. But did you know that back in 1973 Kissinger’s own date, former Bond girl Jill St. John, was subjected a famous occular eye-over by the leader of the Unfree World, Leonid Brezhnev? In the photo below you can almost see Brezhnev calculating out the potential upside of detente with the Americans. Coincidentally, it was in 1973 that Kissinger was quoted in the New York Times saying that: ‘Power is the ultimate aphrodisiac.’

Brezhnev Jill St John 1

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Here is a shot that shows Kissinger (back to camera) and Jill as another guy (described in Walter Isaacson’s Kissinger biography as a ‘naval aide’) gives Jill’s ass a caressing gaze too.

Brezhnev and Jill St. John at Nixon Pool Party

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

3. Size doesn’t matter. Deng Xiaoping. There is no killer photo here, just various official ones like that below. However, when Ronald and Nancy Reagan visited China in 1984 and were received in the Great Hall of the People, Deng said to Nancy (in range of the foreign press corps): ‘I hope you’ ll come the next time and leave the president home.’ After translation, the ever-cool Ron batted the remark away.

Deng XP Nancy R and Ron R

 

 

 

 

 


 

4. Obama-Gucci Helle. These images are so recently famous they hardly bear posting. Except to tee up the less well-known 5., below. Here Obama flirts with Danish prime minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt, known to her countrymen as Gucci Helle for her rather un-Danish love of branded designer clothing.

obama helle 1

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And here is the US president after a bollocking from his wife, who was sitting on the other side of him all along. (There is another image of Brave Dave Cameron forcing his way into Helle and Obama’s selfie, but it is just too depressing to post.)

obama no-helle michelle

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

5. Obabma and Lil sis’ Yingluck. Now here is the collector’s item. It is Obama and Thaksin’s little sister Yingluck, who was running Thailand after Thaksin was thrown out in a coup, at least until Yingluck was also thrown out in a coup. What was that song about ‘One night in Bangkok’?

Obama Yingluck

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

To be fair to Obama, however, I think the story may have been that it was young Yingluck who was providing the come-on.

Obama Yingluck 2

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Vacuous China

November 21, 2014

Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign shows no sign of abating, with admirals and generals fearing for their futures as much as mere civilian bureaucrats and Party cadres. Meanwhile Xi’s vicious clamp-down on dissent goes on apace, with more human rights lawyers being themselves tried on trumped-up charges and Internet censors now firing blunderbusses at great swathes of the webosphere. Today, Ilham Tohti’s life sentence has been confirmed by an appeal ‘court’ that held its ‘hearing’ inside his detention centre.

So, what better time to discover a video of Chinese rich kid students in California flaunting their Bentleys, Maseratis, Porsches and more?

Are you watching, Mr Mao?

 

A little clear thinking

November 18, 2014

I am posting a number of documents by Adair Turner relating to the concept of ‘helicopter money’. The term was coined by Milton Friedman and refers to the idea of simply dropping money into an economy to expand the monetary base without any commitment by a government or central bank to ‘pay’ for the money. Indeed, the point is to increase money supply, possibly permanently, in order to pay for government expenditure.

Printing money to cover a government’s bills is never going to be an easy policy to sell. But Turner has bravely put this option on the table because the place to which the major economies of the world are heading under current policy may actually be worse.

How so? Turner’s point is that the policy of central banks expanding their balance sheets and flooding financial markets with cash to force down interest rates to zero is merely fuelling asset bubbles – in real estate, in stocks, and even now in things like fine art. What the world needs is a return to somewhat higher interest rates to head off another speculative bubble and bust (selling some Apple shares yesterday at 18 times earnings and more than four times what I paid for them reminds me we may already be in bubble territory). The problem, of course, is that higher interest rates cannot come at the expense of another collapse in the demand in the real economy and hence a spiral of 1930s-style deflation. Logically, as Turner argues, the only option may therefore be to expand the monetary base, create a bit of inflation to allow a meaningful rate of interest, and simultaneously use the printed cash pay off some government debt and fund expenditures that maintain real economic growth.

Such a policy would (probably) put the fiscal boot on the other foot compared with the past six years. Almost all UK and US policy since 2008 has favoured those with assets – real estate, stocks and bonds — as asset values have been restored by the near-zero interest rate policy. If rates rise, those who hold assets under leverage will pay more debt service and asset prices will come under pressure. On the other hand, a positive real interest rate gives those with only a bit of cash (the young, the poor) some return on their money in the bank, while money creation can pay for lower taxes on work and investment in things like infrastructure. In other words, such a policy tilts the table away from those with assets and towards those without assets but with a willingness to work for a living. You begin to see quite how outrageous this proposal is…

The proposition is indeed shocking. However it is a measure of the times in which we live that you really should read what Turner is saying. He is not a red, and nor are the economists (like Milton Friedman and Irving Fisher) whom he cites in support. Turner is pretty much an Establishment figure…

The lightest iteration of what Turner is saying is an FT opinion piece from last week. I have not done this before, but I am reproducing it in the hope the FT won’t pursue me for breach of copyright. (Having only been paid £250 for my recent opinion piece for them, perhaps they will decide they owe me a bonus; one notes that deflation is already haunting the Pink’Un.)

November 10, 2014

Printing money to fund deficit is the fastest way to raise rates

By Adair Turner

No technical reasons exist for rejecting this, only the fear of breaking a taboo, writes Adair Turner

What is the right course for monetary policy? The International Monetary Fund seems to answer with forked tongue. Its latest World Economic Outlook urges that monetary policy should stay loose to stimulate growth. Yet its Global Financial Stability Review warns that loose monetary policy risks creating financial instability, which could crimp growth. In fact the best policy is to print money and raise interest rates. That sounds contradictory, but it is not.

The global economy is suffering the hangover from many decades of excessive private sector credit growth. In 1950 private credit in advanced economies was 50 per cent of gross domestic product; by 2007 it was 170 per cent.

After the 2008 crisis, households and companies began trying to pay back what they owed. This depressed consumption and investment, generating large fiscal deficits as tax revenues fell and social expenditure rose. It then seemed essential to balance public sector accounts, which has depressed growth further and made deleveraging harder.

Debt owed by the public and private sectors has actually increased as a proportion of GDP, from 170 per cent five years ago to 200 per cent today. Weak demand has led to below-target inflation in all major economies.

Economists agree that this is how we got into the current mess, but they disagree about how to get out of it. Some, such as Paul Krugman and Lawrence Summers, argue for more relaxed fiscal policies. Cutting taxes or increasing public expenditure is the most certain way to stimulate demand. In Milton Friedman’s words it is an injection directly “into the income stream”. But this route out of recession would increase public debt even further. It seems blocked.

Instead, most countries have opted to combine fiscal tightening with ultra-loose monetary policy, setting short-term interest rates close to zero and using quantitative easing to reduce long-term rates and boost asset prices.

There are no technical reasons to reject such measures, only the fear of breaking a taboo.

But there are dangers. Sustained low interest rates create incentives for highly leveraged financial engineering. They make it easier for uncompetitive companies to survive, which could stymie productivity growth. And they work by restarting growth in private credit – which is what led to our current predicament. The Bank for International Settlements therefore argues that monetary policy should be tightened as well as fiscal, but that would depress demand yet further.

We should indeed seek a swift return to higher interest rates, to remove the dangerous subsidy to high leverage. But paradoxically, the best way to do that, particularly in Japan and the eurozone, would be to deploy a variant of Friedman’s idea of dropping money from a helicopter. Government deficits should temporarily increase, and they should be financed with new money created by the central bank and added permanently to the money supply.

Money-financed deficits would increase demand without creating debts that have to be serviced. This would lift either real output or inflation and allow interest rates to return to normal more quickly. True, banks might amplify the stimulus by creating additional private credit, but they can be restrained with higher reserve requirements.

There are no technical reasons to reject this option, only the fear that once we break the taboo, money-financed deficits will be used on too large a scale.

Despite that fear, de facto monetisation is inevitable in some countries, even if policy makers deny it.

Japan’s official policy involves using sales tax increases to make government debts sustainable, while massive monetary stimulus spurs inflation and growth. In fact there is no believable scenario in which Japan will generate fiscal surpluses sufficient to pay back its debts, nor one in which the Bank of Japan will sell all its holdings of government debt back to the market.

All the same, the pretence undermines the effectiveness of the policy. Japan should either delay the next sales tax increase, or announce a temporary fiscal stimulus financed with new money. It should make clear that the debt the government owes the central bank will never need to be repaid, dispelling fears of a massive future fiscal tightening.

Orthodox theory sees helicopter money as risky. But current quantitative easing policies are at least as risky, and have produced adverse side effects. In the UK the Bank of England has bought £375bn of government bonds to try to stimulate the economy through swollen asset prices and rock-bottom interest rates. It could instead have created new money to finance a smaller one-off increase in the fiscal deficit. If it had done so, a return to normal interest rate disciplines would now be nearer.

 

More. Turner for grown-ups:

Turner’s original CASS business school speech on this subject (2013)

And the slides that go with the CASS speech. (Lots of them, but many worth having if you live in the UK and are about to have people knocking on your door in the run-up to the May national elections asking you to vote for them. ‘Come in,’ you can say. ‘Have a seat and let’s look at the slides together!’)

A bit of Q&A with Turner and Michael Woodford from the Institute For New Economic Thinking blog.

Finally, on Thursday 20 November, the UK parliament will hold a backbench debate on the topic of ‘money creation and society’. It will be the first time that the issue has been addressed in a full debate in the House since the 19th century. You can watch here on Parliament TV and discover just how ill-equipped our politicians are to deal with the aftermath of the global financial crisis.

 

 

Possibly one of those days that the world changed (for the better)

November 12, 2014

This looks like very big news.

Obama and Xi Jinping have reached an understanding (no written agreement, mainly — I am guessing — because of the difficulty of ratifying one in a Republican-dominated congress) on curbing carbon energy emissions.

I am just pasting the New York Times coverage below. You can also click through to a supporting opinion piece by John Kerry.

Some immediate thoughts:

  1. China is promising that its carbon emissions will peak, at the latest, in 2030. Cynics will say the Chinese have not said what the peak will be, or limited it. However China’s carbon emissions per unit of GDP are already officially targeted to fall 40-45% 2020 vs 2005. And China has set and met/is meeting targets to cut energy consumption per unit of GDP 19% in 2005-10 and 16% in 2010-15. These targets were in the last two five-year plans and it would be hard to move away from what is now a 10-year trajectory line in cutting energy intensity in forthcoming five-year plans. In sum, I think the emissions peak by 2030 is a very meaningful target that will not be rendered meaningless by political jiggery-pokery.
  2. China also promised to make renewables 20% of total energy production by 2030. Last year was the first one in which Chinese installation of renewables’ generating capacity exceeded that of carbon electricity generating capacity. A cursory reflection on the numbers suggests to me that installation of power generation capacity going forward will, in just a few years, be almost all renewable in order to achieve the 2030 target. (If your ‘investment advisor’ has not already shorted the stock of Harbin Electric and Dongfang Electric, the two most exposed coal turbine and boiler makers, sack him/her. You probably don’t want to own Shanghai Electric either.)
  3. The US has promised huge cuts versus trend line carbon emissions, too. More cerebrally-challenged Republicans are already doing their nuts.
  4. Obama is back. He’s done healthcare. Now he might go down as the President who saved the planet. So much for playing too much golf…
  5. Xi Jinping’s domestic position goes from strength to strength. But it is a little frightening when one guy commands so much popular support in a society with too few checks and balances on executive power.
  6. Here’s a speculative thought. If the delivery of this understanding turns out to be as good as what appears to be written on the tin, the Nobel Committee will have to think very seriously about giving Obama and Xi a joint Peace Prize. At first blush that might seem a tough choice for the committee, given China’s human rights record and the anti-dissent crackdown under Xi. But should a prize be given, it would be even tougher on President Xi. How could he accept after Liu Xiaobo already got the prize in 2010? This is very premature, but I throw out the thought.

Meanwhile, make a note of where you were when you heard this potentially historic news. I was in the library.

U.S. and China Reach Deal on Climate Change in Secret Talks

By

NOV. 11, 2014

President Obama and President Xi Jinping of China were greeted by children during a ceremony inside the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on Wednesday. Credit Feng Li/Getty Images

BEIJING — China and the United States made common cause on Wednesday against the threat of climate change, staking out an ambitious joint plan to curb carbon emissions as a way to spur nations around the world to make their own cuts in greenhouse gases.

The landmark agreement, jointly announced here by President Obama and President Xi Jinping, includes new targets for carbon emissions reductions by the United States and a first-ever commitment by China to stop its emissions from growing by 2030.

Administration officials said the agreement, which was worked out secretly between the United States and China over nine months and included a letter from Mr. Obama to Mr. Xi proposing a joint approach, could galvanize efforts to negotiate a new global climate agreement by 2015.

Related in Opinion

  • Op-Ed Contributor: John Kerry: Our Historic Agreement With China on Climate ChangeNOV. 11, 2014

It was the signature achievement of an unexpectedly productive two days of meetings between the leaders. Mr. Obama and Mr. Xi also agreed to a military accord designed to avert clashes between Chinese and American planes and warships in the tense waters off the Chinese coast, as well as an understanding to cut tariffs for technology products.

A climate deal between China and the United States, the world’s No. 1 and No. 2 carbon polluters, is viewed as essential to concluding a new global accord. Unless Beijing and Washington can resolve their differences, climate experts say, few other countries will agree to mandatory cuts in emissions, and any meaningful worldwide pact will be likely to founder.

“The United States and China have often been seen as antagonists,” said a senior official, speaking in advance of Mr. Obama’s remarks. “We hope that this announcement can usher in a new day in which China and the U.S. can act much more as partners.”

As part of the agreement, Mr. Obama announced that the United States would emit 26 percent to 28 percent less carbon in 2025 than it did in 2005. That is double the pace of reduction it targeted for the period from 2005 to 2020.

China’s pledge to reach peak carbon emissions by 2030, if not sooner, is even more remarkable. To reach that goal, Mr. Xi pledged that so-called clean energy sources, like solar power and windmills, would account for 20 percent of China’s total energy production by 2030.

Administration officials acknowledged that Mr. Obama could face opposition to his plans from a Republican-controlled Congress. While the agreement with China needs no congressional ratification, lawmakers could try to roll back Mr. Obama’s initiatives, undermining the United States’ ability to meet the new reduction targets.

Still, Mr. Obama’s visit, which came days after a setback in the midterm elections, allowed him to reclaim some of the momentum he lost at home. As the campaign was turning against the Democrats last month, Mr. Obama quietly dispatched John Podesta, a senior adviser who oversees climate policy, to Beijing to try to finalize a deal.

For all the talk of collaboration, the United States and China also displayed why they are still fierce rivals for global economic primacy, promoting competing free-trade blocs for the Asian region even as they reached climate and security deals.

The maneuvering came during a conference of Pacific Rim economies held in Beijing that has showcased China’s growing dominance in Asia, but also the determination of the United States, riding a resurgent economy, to reclaim its historical role as a Pacific power.

Adding to the historic nature of the visit, Mr. Obama and Mr. Xi were scheduled to give a joint news conference on Wednesday that will include questions from reporters — a rare concession by the Chinese leader to a visiting American president.

On Tuesday evening, Mr. Xi invited Mr. Obama to dinner at his official residence, telling his guest he hoped they had laid the foundation for a collaborative relationship — or, as he more metaphorically put it, “A pool begins with many drops of water.”

Greeting Mr. Obama at the gate of the walled leadership compound next to the Forbidden City, Mr. Xi squired him across a brightly lighted stone bridge and into the residence. Mr. Obama told the Chinese president that he wanted to take the relationship “to a new level.”

“When the U.S. and China are able to work together effectively,” he added, “the whole world benefits.”

But as the world witnessed this week, it is more complicated than that. Mr. Xi won approval Tuesday from the 21 countries of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum to study the creation of a China-led free-trade zone that would be an alternative to Mr. Obama’s Trans-Pacific Partnership, a 12-nation trading bloc that excludes China.

On Monday, Mr. Obama met with members of that group here and claimed progress in negotiating the partnership, a centerpiece of his strategic shift to Asia.

Negotiations for the Trans-Pacific Partnership are much further along than those for the nascent Chinese plan, known as the Free Trade Area of Asia Pacific, and some analysts said the approval by the Pacific Rim nations of a two-year study was mainly a gesture to the Chinese hosts to give them something to announce at the meeting.

For all the jockeying, the biggest trade headline was a breakthrough in negotiations with China to eliminate tariffs on information technology products, from video-game consoles and computer software to medical equipment and semiconductors.

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.

 

Visibility on Xi / Heineken government

July 17, 2013

Xi Jinping close

There has been a lot of good quality think-tank and media stuff in the past few weeks about what the new Chinese president Xi Jinping may be thinking and planning. Since what his government implements in the next two to three years will largely decide how far China can go with its developmental project, I am posting some highlights here.

The big lacuna, for me, is that there is no similar debate about what premier Li Keqiang may be thinking and planning and what his capacity to act (semi-) independently of Xi may be. Premiers are also important in the Chinese system and, from time to time, you get ones like Zhao Ziyang or Zhu Rongji who define an era more than the president. Anyhow, the Li side of things is not much addressed here.

 

The background

Recall that Obama did two days of unscripted discussions with Xi in California in June in an effort to find out what is happening in Xi’s head. My sense is that Obama didn’t get a very clear view.

 

1. Francois Godemont’s essay Xi Jingping’s China, published by the European Council on Foreign Relations. Godement has Xi as the new Chinese Big Man, streamlining the bureaucracy and limiting corruption but doing almost zero at the institutional development level. I found this sort of interesting but not compelling in the sense of really giving visibility.

The blurb says Godement argues that:

  • Xi has accumulated more power and more personal authority than any leader since Mao Zedong. His top-down approach will probably leave little room for major political reform or economic liberalisation; his “hardline modernisation” approach seeks instead to combat behaviour such as corruption and loose credit.
  • The economy is the one area where Xi doesn’t seem fully in control. The price he has paid for broad support from party elders and conservatives is also an endorsement of major vested interests, which will constrain those arguing for major economic reform.
  • Xi is ignoring his predecessors’ “low profile” approach to foreign policy, and claims a role for China as a global power. Xi seeks strategic parity with the US while its regional approach is based upon China’s superior strength.

“Xi Jinping is pursuing a neighbourhood policy based on strength in which China subjugates small countries while building a “big power” relationship with the US. Xi seems to want to combine 19th century geopolitics with 20th century Leninist politics, in order to gain the upper hand in the globalised 21st century world.” François Godement

….

2. Here is a resume of what Tim Summers at Chatham House in London thinks we know so far. Again, the expectation seems to be that we are not going to get significant institutional reform or indeed incremental moves in the direction of political pluralism. However the author sees moves in social policy areas like environmental degradation as some sort of half-way house between pure economic reform and more politically sensitive reform. This would have some echoes in 1970s Japan or 1980s Korea. (There is a reference to me at the end. I don’t know Mr Summers.)

China’s Current Reform Agenda

by Dr Tim Summers, Senior Consulting Fellow, Chatham House

There is an ongoing debate about reform in China which centres around questions of how far and how fast reform – political and economic – might go.Political reform – at least in most western discussions – encapsulates the possibility of changes to China’s political system. Under the country’s new leaders there is little sign of fundamental shifts so far, though there are campaigns to clean up the bureaucracy and make the Party-state more responsive.Economic reform is often reduced to greater marketization and a reduction in the state’s role in the economy. This has been prompted partly by a sense that state-owned enterprises have become too powerful, that the private sector has insufficient space to develop, and that factor markets are still too much in the hands of government officials.

Reform in motion

The coming months will see further debate, inside and outside China, about what sort of reforms China’s new leadership might consider. President Xi Jinping confirmed to Barack Obama in California in June that the Party machine was working on a medium and long-term policy plan for comprehensive economic reforms, and precedent suggests that this will be unveiled at this autumn’s Party Plenum.In fact, the new leadership has already set in train some elements of a reform programme. At the National People’s Congress (NPC) in March it was agreed that the railways ministry would be reduced to a policy administration and its operations would be fully corporatized. Other changes to government structure included the establishment of a new, stronger agency for food safety, symbolic of the desire to respond to growing popular concerns.After a meeting of the State Council (cabinet) in May, a subsequent policy document set out the most comprehensive statement of government priorities for economic reform this year since the NPC. Some of these are economic: reforms to the fiscal system, financial sector reform such as further marketization of interest rates and internationalization of the currency, encouraging more private and flexible investment, and freeing up the pricing of resources. There do not appear to be plans to shake up state-owned enterprises. Other points address livelihood issues, such as low income protection, ensuring food and medicine safety, and dealing with the environment.The highlight so far is administrative reform, in particular reducing government approvals needed in certain areas and devolving other responsibilities from the centre to the provinces. These reforms amount to making the government more responsive and efficient, but without changing the fundamental political structures. Part of the motivation is to help stimulate innovation and economic efficiency, but there is also a social element in the suggestion that these reforms could improve the delivery of public services.Social element

Less noticed is the extent to which social and livelihood issues feature. Even when it comes to resource pricing, for example, there are aims to differentiate pricing in electricity, water and gas (planned for some time) to support livelihoods.

Indeed, the ‘economic reform’ document for 2013 has as its guiding principle dealing with the state’s relationship not just with the market, but also with society. A reference to ‘reform dividends’ benefiting people ‘more justly’ highlights the social element. This is not a manifesto for economic efficiency alone.

Social issues have also been prominent on the agenda of the State Council, under new Premier Li Keqiang. According to official accounts of its meetings, major issues discussed over recent months include air pollution, developing the solar panel industry, safety in (industrial) production, providing safe and high quality milk powder, managing the agricultural sector to ensure supply and stable prices, and dealing with the earthquake which hit Sichuan in April.

A social policy emphasis makes a lot of sense. While economists and investors have stressed their desire for market-oriented economic reforms to improve efficiency, from a political perspective the most pressing issues the leadership faces are social and popular concerns.

There were hints of this as soon as Xi Jinping took over from Hu Jintao as head of the Chinese Communist Party back in November. Xi’s first public comments highlighted people’s desire for ‘better education, stable jobs, more income, greater social security, better medical and health care, improved housing conditions and a better environment’.

All of this suggests we should rethink the way we understand ‘reform’ in the Chinese context. Social, or livelihood, issues are at the forefront of Chinese policy making. And economic reform does not just mean the economics of efficiency (to borrow a phrase from Joe Studwell’s How Asia Works), but also addressing social and livelihood issues through the economics of equity.

3. Kerry Brown, once of Chatham House, now based in Australia, has some nice bullets on what we may know about Xi. The final bullet is one I think I would have gone for. What interests me most is to understand the mechanics of the political tendency to increasing consensus and conservatism in fast-developing states. Is it just the effect having more money that encourages politicians to buy off constituencies and avoid confrontation for as long as possible?

The New Leadership in Beijing: Political and Economic Implications

Evidence to Parliament
Kerry Brown, July 2013

This is a submission to the Foreign Affairs Committee, House of Commons, on 2 July 2013.

  • China’s new leadership is one of political scientists, historians, economists, lawyers and social scientists. The era of the technocrats has come to an end.
  • This is a leadership set up for a domestic agenda and that will resist attempts to pull it more deeply into international affairs, which are seen as lying beyond what the elite define as in China’s national interests (preservation of stability, building up economic strength, safeguarding sovereignty), despite the very real pressures that will be put on it to that effect.
  • They view international relations in a more emboldened way than their predecessors, and show their awareness of their country’s new economic status and how this needs to be reflected in how the world talks to and engages with China.
  • Underneath the bolder presentation of reformist intention towards corruption, economic policy and use of political language, the Chinese Communist Party in the 21st century lives with the paradox that a movement founded in revolution has become, in its seventh decade in power, self-preserving, highly cautious, led by people with remarkably little diversity, and extremely conservative.

4. Michael Komesaroff is a thoughtful commodities specialists who writes the Metal Man column in the China Economic Quarterly. I am not posting his presentation because you should register at his Urandaline site in order to get it. However it, and other useful things he posts, are free. Who said that Australians are tighter than Scots? Here is his blurb.

After Hu: More of the same, is the title of a presentation I made in April to the Sydney based clients of UBS. The presentation develops a theme I have been articulating for sometime, namely that Western observers of China are likely to be disappointed in the reforms they seem to be expecting from China’s new leadership.The presentation includes a positive forecast on China’s need to import greater quantities of iron ore, but this is offset by changes in market power so thermal coal is less attractive. After Hu: More of the same can be found here.

You are receiving this e-mail because some time back you registered at my websitewww.urandaline.com.au to receive notification when additions were made to the site.  At the time of registration these are the log in parameters you chose:

5. A macro-economic aside. In terms of the raw economic problem that the new government faces, this graph from Gavekal Dragonomics is useful. It shows how much nominal growth banking lending produces — in other words a proxy for a pure Incremental Capital Output Ratio. The point is that chucking money around is producing diminishing returns, as one would expect at this stage of development, and so structural adjustment and institutional change are suddenly very important as means to improve Chinese bang-for-buck.

The question is whether Xi and Li do only economic structural adjustment — such as interest rate reform, a revision to the centre-provincial fiscal arrangements in place since 1994, more action on welfare transfers and inequality — or whether they add any institutional medicine from education system to legal system to media to political pluralism modernisation.

….

6. More media-type stuff now. This is an op-ed from Russell Leigh Moses, Dean of Academics and Faculty at The Beijing Center for Chinese Studies, who is writing a book on the Chinese political system.

Xi Jinping’s Rare Scolding of Top Party Leaders (Wall Street Journal)

By Russell Leigh Moses

After telling the lower ranks of the Communist Party to shape up and make a clean break from past practice, Chinese leader Xi Jinping has taken aim at a new target:  the Party leadership itself.

And he’s done so with authority and openness from the highest pulpit of politics in China–the Politburo, the very place where the senior leaders sit and make policy.

In a speech at the conclusion of a three-day special meeting that was covered across Party media and took up nearly half of the evening newscast on Tuesday evening, Xi proclaimed that senior members of the Party needed “to play an exemplary role,” and that they had to be “broad-minded enough to reject any selfishness…to adhere to self-respect, self-examination and self-admonition” in their work (in Chinese).

It’s extremely rare for Politburo proceedings to be spoken of in such detail and openness.  And it’s unprecedented in modern times for the Party boss to start taking swings at his colleagues at the top by so directly reminding them of their responsibilities—a move that suggests he might be planning something even stronger soon.

Having just admonished lower-level cadres in a salvo last week, some observers might think that Xi is simply putting on a show here. After all, it’s difficult to demand improvement in the work-styles of the rank and file without at least paying lip-service to the idea that those at the top could stand to do a little better themselves.

But the tone of Xi’s comments and the play they’ve received in the state media suggest this is far more than just rhetorical window dressing.  It wasn’t enough for high officials to “strictly abide by party discipline and act in strict accordance with policies and procedures,” Xi said. Those at the top must also “strictly manage their relatives and their staff and refrain from abuse of power.”

“The sole pursuit” of senior members of the Party, Xi insisted, should be tied to “the Party’s cause and interests” – in other words, “to seek benefits for the Chinese people as a whole.”

Whether it’s misuse of official license plates or the high-end looting of state assets (in Chinese), Xi knows that corruption is not always confined to lower-level cadres.

Xi was careful to concede that there have been some positive developments in the ways by which the Politburo and other Party bodies operate, such as “improvements in research and reporting.”  Meetings have been shortened and presentations streamlined, “enhancing the majority of party members’ and cadres’ sense of purpose, as well as the view of the masses” towards the Party leadership, he noted.

But it’s clearly morality at the top — not the way that decisions are made — that concerns Xi and his allies the most.   As Xi’s speech noted, “as long as Politburo comrades always and everywhere set an example, they can continue to call the shots, for that will have a strong demonstration effect, and the Party will be very powerful.”

But Party leaders “must follow their own strict requirements first.”

Xi’s reprimand seems to imply that some of them are not.  His predecessors talked about the general threat to Party rule from the evils of corruption; but in nearly every case they chose to scold officials in the abstract, instead of smacking them around.  As with so many other efforts, Xi’s being different.

Indeed, such comments raise the very real possibility that Xi has someone specific in mind – that he could be about to strike against one or more of the conservatives who populate the Politburo and who might be standing in the way of further reforms.

Whatever form the next round of fighting takes, Xi and his reformist colleagues are clearly interested in creating a fresh sort of politics, even at the very top of the system.  This is risk-taking and resolution of a high order–and it brings a real political showdown with opponents of Xi’s brand of reform all the closer.

7. And this is an op-ed from Ching Cheong, the venerable Straits Times journalist who was locked up in China for three years accused (among other things) of spying for Taiwan. It talks about Xi’s encounter with Hu Dehua, which was referenced above.

海峡时报 (新加坡)

Opinion  |   Others  |   By Ching Cheong, Senior Writer  2013-06-28

Outspoken China princeling takes on President Xi 

 CHINESE President Xi Jinping’s conservative stance on political reform has led to a major split within the princeling community, whose members share a common interest in preserving the ruling status of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

Mr Hu Dehua, the third son of the late party chief Hu Yaobang, openly criticised Mr Xi at a seminar held by the liberal magazine Yan Huang Chunqiu in mid-April. It was by far the most severe criticism lodged against Mr Xi since the latter became CCP general secretary last November.

Mr Hu Yaobang was the CCP general secretary from 1982 to 1987. He was known for “liberating” thousands of senior CCP officials purged by CCP founder Mao Zedong. For this reason, he wielded considerable moral strength within the party. Mr Hu Yaobang’s death in 1989 triggered a massive democracy movement in Tiananmen Square that was put down bloodily.

Thanks to his legacy, his two sons, Deping and Dehua, stood out as symbols of political reform amongst the princelings.

Before Mr Xi became CCP chief last November, he let it be known that he paid a visit to Mr Hu Deping and had a long chat with him. Many considered this an attempt by Mr Xi to build an image as an enlightened leader.

Now, however, Mr Xi has been taken to task by Mr Hu Dehua.

He started with Mr Xi’s speech to party colleagues during his southern tour early this year. In it, the President stated that the Soviet Union collapsed because the party had disarmed itself by allowing the army to be loyal to the country rather than the party. “One lesson to draw is that we should forever grasp firmly the gun and not to disarm ourselves,” the President said.

Mr Xi also lamented that when the country faced disintegration, given the size of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU), there was no one “man enough” to come to its defence.

To refute him, Mr Hu Dehua cited Russian Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov’s view that the Soviet Union collapsed because the CPSU had monopolised resources, political power and truth. “If this was the case, then there was nothing to regret if the Soviet Union or the CPSU collapsed,” he said.

Mr Hu Dehua then hinted that Mr Xi had misread the reason for the collapse of the CPSU. Mr Hu cited a CCP document of July 14, 1964, entitled On Khrushchov’s Phoney Communism And Its Historical Lessons for the World, saying that there emerged in the Soviet Union a privileged class represented by the CPSU.

“The members of this pivileged stratum have converted the function of serving the masses into the privilege of dominating them. They are abusing their powers over the means of production and of livelihood for the private benefit of their small clique,” the document said.

“The members of this privileged stratum appropriate the fruits of the Soviet people’s labour and pocket incomes that are dozens or even a hundred times those of the average Soviet worker and peasant. They not only secure high incomes in the form of high salaries, high awards, high royalties and a great variety of personal subsidies, but also use their privileged position to appropriate public property by graft and bribery. Completely divorced from the working people of the Soviet Union, they live the parasitical and decadent life of the bourgeoisie,” said the document.

Mr Hu Dehua pointed out that this was the real reason for the collapse of the Soviet Union. Turning to present-day China, which was plagued with problems similar to the Soviet Union’s, he said pointedly: “We blame everyone else, but never try to find problems from within. Is this a correct attitude?

“Why can’t we learn from the Kuomintang (in Taiwan), reform ourselves and get elected, basing our legitimacy on people’s authorisation and not on guns and cannon?” Mr Hu Dehua asked.

He then queried Mr Xi’s remark that no one was “man enough” to save the CPSU. “What does it mean by ‘man enough’?” he asked.

“Driving third-generation battlefield tanks against your own people is ‘man enough’? Or resisting orders to kill your own people and opt to face martial court instead?” he asked.

“When the ruling party faces a crisis, there are two options: to suppress the opposition or to reach reconciliation with the people,” Mr Hu Dehua said.

“We should learn from the experience of Chiang Ching-kuo (the late Taiwanese President who scrapped martial law). Be bold enough to reflect on the Feb 28, 1947 incident (where demonstrators were bloodily suppressed) so that historical pains could be redressed without bloodshed, revenge or purges.”

Clearly, Mr Hu Dehua was referring to the Tiananmen incident.

He then turned to Mr Xi’s latest assertion that one should not use post-reform history to negate the pre-reform years.

Mr Hu argued that without turning its back on the traumatic Cultural Revolution (1966 to 1976), the CCP could not embrace reform and open the door to usher in a period of prosperity.

“If one should not negate the first 30 years, does it mean that we still have to uphold the Cultural Revolution, uphold Mao Zedong’s purges of senior cadres, including his remark that Mr Xi’s father, Xi Zhongxun, was a counter-revolutionary who used novels as a weapon to conduct anti-CCP activities?”

This last question put the Chinese President in an extremely awkward position.

Mr Hu decided recently to release the transcript of his speech on the Web.

Mr Chen Ziming, a dissident branded as the black hand behind the 1989 Tiananmen incident, speculated that the recent salvos of propaganda attacking constitutionalism might have prompted Mr Hu to take Mr Xi to task.

Mr Hu’s open criticism of Mr Xi also suggests that the princeling community is sharply divided over how to preserve the ruling status of the CCP, especially over whether rampant corruption and widespread unrest can be dealt with without political reform.

Do you feel enlightened? I feel very slightly less in the dark. Rather like thousands and thousands of Chinese cadres, not to mention the general population, who are waiting to find out what Xi4Li3 (a homonym of Heineken’s Chinese name Xi3Li4 – you heard it here first) are actually going to do. I don’t mind a bottle of Heineken. But is that all this nation of 1.3 billion can offer us?

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

Snowden 2

July 12, 2013

Snowden Manning yes we can Snowden red and blue

I am simply reposting the following from The Guardian in the UK because it is important. This is not something I will normally do. It appears that the White House petition to pardon Snowden is still active, and it now has 130,000 signatures. If you are an American (you need to be) I would urge you to sign this.

And here is the latest from Snowden about how the NSA, CIA, FBI is scooping up your Microsoft Outlook, Skype, etc communications with the active cooperation of the software firms. I reiterate my suggestion to try DuckDuckGo as a search alternative to Google.

The Guardian’s excellent live coverage is here. This will also link you through to a live Russian TV feed from Moscow airport if you are reading this soon after I wrote it.

Mr Obama, you are starting to get yourself on the wrong side of history.

More:

Here, via The Guardian’s live coverage from Moscow, is the quote from Snowden today that I like:

<Snowden is saying he wants to remain in Russia and travel, and he wants international organisations to petition the US and EU not to interfere with that.

Referring to Putin’s condition that he can only stay if he stops harming the US, Snowden apparently has said: “No actions I take or plan are meant to harm the US … I want the US to succeed.”

[Snowden] seems to be saying that the only way he can guarantee his safety where he is now, before he heads to Latin America, is to gain temporary asylum in Russia… Ellen Barry of the New York Times reports that Tanya Lokshina of Human Rights Watch, who is in the meeting, says Snowden has said he has received offers from Venezuela, Russia, Bolivia, Nicaragua, Ecuador. He thanks them. He says he accepts all offers, present and future. The offer from Venezuela has been made formally. He wants help in guaranteeing his safe passage to Latin America, she says. He will submit an asylum claim to Russia today, but he plans to go to Latin America eventually, she says.>

 

Edward Snowden: US officials are preventing me claiming asylum

NSA whistleblower calls meeting with Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch at Sheremetyevo airport

Jump to comments (576)

Sheremetyevo airport, Moscow

Passengers wait for their flights at Sheremetyevo airport: Edward Snowden has been stuck in the transit zone for over three weeks. Photograph: Ivan Sekretarev/AP

The NSA surveillance whistleblower Edward Snowden has said US officials are waging a campaign to prevent him from taking up asylum offers as he called a meeting in Moscow airport with human rightsgroups.

In a letter sent to groups including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, the former intelligence agency contractor claimed there was “an unlawful campaign by officials in the US government to deny my right to seek and enjoy … asylum under article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights” and invited them to meet him at 5pm local time.

“The scale of threatening behaviour is without precedent: never before in history have states conspired to force to the ground a sovereign president’s plane to effect a search for a political refugee,” he wrote to the groups.

“This dangerous escalation represents a threat not just to the dignity of Latin America or my own personal security, but to the basic right shared by every living person to live free from persecution.”

Reuters quoted an airport official as saying Snowden would meet the groups on Friday afternoon in the transit area of Sheremetyevo, where he has remained since flying to Russia from Hong Kong on 23 June.

The 30-year-old former NSA employee is trying to negotiate asylum elsewhere to avoid facing charges in the US, including espionage, for divulging details about US electronic surveillance programmes.

“I can confirm that such a meeting will take place,” an airport spokeswoman said.

Reuters said Amnesty and Transparency International had been invited to meet Snowden, with the former confirming it would attend.

Sergei Nikitin, the head of Amnesty International Russia, said: “Yes, I have received a brief email. It said that he would like to meet with a representative of a human rights organisation – there was not much information there. I’m planning to go.”

Tanya Lokshina of Human Rights Watch confirmed she had been invited to the meeting and posted Snowden’s letter on Facebook.

In the emailed letter – which Lokshina said she could not independently verify as coming from Snowden – the former intelligence worker said he had been “extremely fortunate to enjoy and accept many offers of support and asylum from brave countries around the world”. He added: “These nations have my gratitude, and I hope to travel to each of them to extend my personal thanks to their people and leaders. By refusing to compromise their principles in the face of intimidation, they have earned the respect of the world.

“Unfortunately, in recent weeks we have witnessed an unlawful campaign by officials in the US government to deny my right to seek and enjoy this asylum.”

The email ends with an invitation for rights groups to meet him at the airport at 5pm (2pm BST).

Snowden is still believed to be weighing up his options. Late on Thursday, Venezuela’s foreign minister said the country had yet to receive a formal response to its offer of asylum.

“We communicated last week. We made an offer and so far we haven’t received a reply,” Elias Jaua told Reuters during a regional foreign ministers’ meeting in Uruguay.

Venezuela is one of three countries to offer asylum to Snowden, along with Bolivia and Nicaragua.

In a separate email to Reuters, Snowden confirmed that the meeting with human rights groups would go ahead but said it would be closed to the press. He said he planned to speak to the media later.

The letter told the groups to bring identification and meet at 4.30pm at Sheremetyevo airport in Terminal F, “in the centre of the arrival hall [where] someone from airport staff will be waiting there to receive you with a sign labelled G9”.


%d bloggers like this: