Archive for the ‘South-east Asia’ Category

Official: I will no longer travel to China

February 7, 2021

Well, here’s the straw that broke the camel’s back.

Tibet, Xinjiang, South China Sea, Taiwan, Hong Kong. And a ridiculous number of individual cases of persons taken hostage by a state.

In the words of the late, great Gill Scott Heron: ‘It follows a pattern, if you know what I mean…’

The straw is the case of an Irish businessman, recounted below in the Irish Independent.

I am less diplomatic than the thoroughly decent Winston Lord, who is quoted. What I say is: ‘Fuck Xi Jinping and his miserable, proto-fascist government.’

I should also say that I hope you will believe me that it is pure coincidence that it is the case of a white male that has brought me this point. He just happened to be that straw.


…..

In February 2019, Richard O’Halloran flew to Shanghai for a series of meetings and has been ‘held hostage’ by the authorities ever since. The Irish Government is facing growing calls to step up its response 

Close knit: The O’Halloran family in happier times with Isabella, Tara, Ben, Scarlett, Richard and Amber all together

Close knit: The O’Halloran family in happier times with Isabella, Tara, Ben, Scarlett, Richard and Amber all together
Peter Goff
February 06 2021 02:30 AM


As Dublin prepares to light up buildings red to celebrate Chinese New Year, an Irish businessman detained in Shanghai for “corporate ransom” has now missed two Christmases with his wife and four young children.
Richard O’Halloran, a 45-year-old Dublin businessman, has been told he must pay $36m to the Chinese authorities before he can leave the country. His plight has put the potential hazards of doing business with China under the spotlight.


Critics say this is the latest example of Beijing’s lack of respect for the rule of law, international norms and human rights, while there have also been calls for the Irish Government to be more assertive.
Winston Lord, a former US ambassador to China, says O’Halloran’s situation was “a very sad and frustrating and indeed cruel case”. “This is a slippery slope and unless countries push back firmly on this kind of unfair detention, it can lead to greater and greater outrages,” he says.
The businessman’s wife, Tara O’Halloran, said last week on RTÉ radio that “we are crying out to the Government to step in and take control and demand he is released because he is innocent and he is not getting enough help”.


She said he had a serious lung condition, has suffered seizures in China, has had to be resuscitated twice, has regular panic attacks and that his mental health was at a low ebb.
“We are pleading for him to come home on humanitarian grounds, his health is deteriorating, he is very ill,” she said. “It can’t go on much longer; he won’t survive much longer over there on his own.”
President Michael D Higgins wrote to Chinese President Xi Jinping on December 23 and received a reply on January 29 suggesting the authorities on both sides “maintain communication and co-ordination to create conditions for an early and proper solution to the case”.
Lord says he was encouraged by the correspondence, “but it never should have got to this point”.
“I’m reluctant to criticise a friendly government, but I have to say in all candour that until this recent move by the Irish President, which I warmly welcome, the Irish Government’s performance in this has been disappointing, to put it is as diplomatically as I can,” he says.

“It has an interest, both in terms of protecting its own citizens but also just in pure humanitarian terms, and also for its reputation, to move aggressively to try to resolve this situation. And I think they’ve been very slow and tepid in their efforts until recently.”The Department of Foreign Affairs said that while it could not comment on the details of an individual case, it “continues to provide all possible consular support and assistance to Mr O’Halloran and attaches the utmost importance to his welfare”. It said the case has been raised regularly at “senior political and diplomatic level” with the Chinese authorities.

The statement added that Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney “remains actively and personally engaged, and senior officials in Dublin, Beijing and Shanghai continue to do everything possible to ensure that Mr O’Halloran can return home”.
‘We can’t see any progress’
In response, Tara O’Halloran told RTÉ: “That is not enough. A couple of phone calls and a couple of emails to the authorities is not enough. They need to take a stance and stand up and say that he is being illegally detained; they have no basis for holding him. We can’t see any progress and I am literally begging for help. I’m begging them and begging them and begging them. For two years I’ve been begging them.”

Close knit: The O’Halloran family in happier times with Isabella, Tara, Ben, Scarlett, Richard and Amber all together

Close knit: The O’Halloran family in happier times with Isabella, Tara, Ben, Scarlett, Richard and Amber all together
Richard O’Halloran, a relative of the late Fine Gael taoiseach Garret FitzGerald, is a director of China International Aviation Leasing Service Co Limited (CALS Ireland). The complex case that he has found himself embroiled in centres on an Airbus A330 airplane that CALS has leased to Finnair, according to David Maughan, partner with law firm William Fry, which acts for CALS.
The chairman of CALS, Min Jiedong, was arrested in China on charges of running an illegal crowdfunding scheme and was sentenced to 10 years in prison. There is no evidence that he used the money to buy the Airbus but the authorities are targeting it because it is a major asset connected to him. In February 2019, O’Halloran flew to China to hold meetings with colleagues after Min was arrested. When he attempted to board his return flight after a week of meetings, he was detained and told he would not be able to leave China. The charges against Min predate O’Halloran’s time with the company, and Min had agreed to buy the plane 10 months before he had joined CALS, Maughan says.

During the trial, both the prosecutor and Min told the court that O’Halloran had no involvement in Min’s crowdfunding in China and should be allowed to return to Ireland.“He is not guilty of any crime, nor has he been charged with any crime. He is being illegally detained… I would call this corporate ransom,” Maughan says.

O’Halloran testified as a witness four times in Min’s prosecution, and following Min’s sentencing he was subpoenaed to an enforcement court to give a financial account of CALS Ireland. On each of these five occasions, the Chinese authorities denied requests from the Irish Embassy to have representatives attend as observers. The court appointed an interpreter but O’Halloran was not allowed any legal representation in court, nor was he given any documentation relating to the appearances, Maughan says.

As part of a proposal to secure O’Halloran’s release, CALS sent the Chinese court $200,000 some weeks ago as a “good-faith payment”, Maughan says, but when the money arrived in China, police interrogated O’Halloran for six hours about the source of the funds. “During that interrogation the police said that the sum of $6m should be paid to resolve the case, and they also told him that his exit ban had been lifted,” he says.
O’Halloran booked the next flight home, “but when he got to the airport, he was denied access to board the aircraft,” Maughan says, “and he was escorted out of the airport by seven police officers wearing bodycams”.
At the latest hearing on February 2, in front of three judges, “they said that he was very healthy, despite all his many health issues, and is personally responsible to pay back the figure of $36m,” Maughan says.
“We were flabbergasted. The Chinese side picked this number of $36m, which no one knows where it came from. We haven’t been party to any of the proceedings.”

Response: Simon Coveney “remains actively and personally engaged" in the Richard O'Halloran case, according to the Department of Foreign Affairs

Response: Simon Coveney “remains actively and personally engaged” in the Richard O’Halloran case, according to the Department of Foreign Affairs
He says they had made several proposals to the Chinese ambassador in Dublin and to Coveney to try to resolve the issue, including resigning his position, handing over control of the bank accounts to the courts, or allowing the Chinese court to take over Min’s shares in related companies — including one in the Cayman Islands that owns the plane — so they could then control the assets.
In 2019, CALS agreed with a third party after a public tender process to sell the aircraft. “But the Chinese courts turned down Richard’s request that the aircraft be sold. Unfortunately, due to the global pandemic, the aircraft is worth half of what CALS had agreed to sell the aircraft for,” Maughan says.

Another proposal involved O’Halloran returning to Dublin and continuing to work for CALS to manage the five remaining years of the lease on the plane to Finnair, at which point the plane could be sold or flown to China. None of the proposals were accepted, Maughan says.
“If the Chinese side took the shares off Min, Richard O’Halloran would be home next week — if someone would take a big picture approach,” he adds. “There are plenty of solutions here if the Chinese wished to engage. I welcome Xi’s comments but it will take engagement. And I would not be optimistic, based on what the three judges said; that Richard and the board come up with $36m.”
Barring visitors from leaving is a tactic used widely in China, and the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs now advises travellers to China that “Chinese authorities may place an exit ban on an individual to prevent them from leaving the country”. It adds that an exit ban “may be placed on an individual, their family or an employer; or in a criminal or civil matter, including a business dispute”.

The travel advisory says “such bans, which are distinct from detention or imprisonment, are part of the Chinese legal process and may endure for months, or longer”.
The US State Department uses stronger language, saying China “arbitrarily enforces local laws, including by carrying out arbitrary and wrongful detentions and through the use of exit bans on US citizens and citizens of other countries without due process of law”.
Charles Parton, a fellow of the Royal United Services Institute and a former British diplomat who spent more than two decades working in or on China, says that the taking of “hostages” was not unusual in commercial disputes in China.

“It’s quite a common tactic at a local level, provincial or below, where they’ve got contacts in the local government and in order to get their way in an argument with a foreign company, they deliberately take a hostage in this way,” he says.
Tara O’Halloran said in the recent interview that for a long time she had not spoken out about her husband’s plight because she had been advised that quiet diplomacy would be the best approach.
“We had faith in the Irish Government that they were going to help us, that they were going to intervene, help us, and we were advised not to go public because it might upset the Chinese, that they might retaliate, they might decide to keep him longer. But I can’t sit back and let him be there for another two years,” she said.
Observers say that, in most cases, exit bans never come to light because the parties involved do not publicise them in the hopes of finding a quiet resolution.

Parton says while each situation was different, he felt that, in general, people should speak out about these bans. “I think this business of keeping a low profile is not always wise,” he says. “That plays along with their game. I think you should make as much noise about it as one can. This is an example of local rather than central abuse and it should be called out in my view.”
Alexander Dukalskis, an associate professor at University College Dublin’s School of Politics and International Relations, says that, in general terms, the human rights situation has regressed “from an already low level” since Xi Jinping took the reins of the Communist Party of China (CCP) in 2012.
“Human rights lawyers have been systematically repressed under Xi, which further compounds the problem because it eliminates a source of protection. The previous leadership of Hu Jintao was more liberal — by CCP standards — than the current party leadership. More criticism was tolerated in the political sphere and activists were able to operate within certain boundaries,” says Dukalskis, who is author of the forthcoming book Making the World Safe for Dictatorship.
“Things have tightened under Xi, in some areas drastically so,” he adds. “China’s policies of repression in Xinjiang, for example, were already harsh before 2014, but since then they have become draconian, possibly even genocidal.”
On the international stage, China has been accused recently of adopting an aggressive form of “Wolf Warrior diplomacy”, and generally taking a more combative approach to its multilateral relations.
Lord, the former ambassador, says that things were getting worse “both domestically in terms of oppression and internationally in terms of adventurism, and in terms of interfering in other countries and pressuring other citizens”.
As China plays an increasingly important role on the world stage, Parton says countries have to stand up against human rights abuses or the situation will only get worse.
“Bullies are bullies whether they are at the international level or the playground level. And if you give way to bullies, what do you get? You just get more bullying,” says Parton, who worked with the EU delegation in Beijing for his final China posting.

More, later:

This guy is still going to Hong Kong. I guess the Hongkies need him, given what is going on there:

AN Oxford City councillor has announced he will be stepping down from his role with immediate effect as his work requires him to spend an increasing amount of time overseas.

Councillor Paul Harris will no longer represent the ward of St Margaret’s on Oxford City Council.

He was elected in 2018 and is a member of the Liberal Democrat Group on the council and has served as the opposition spokesperson for cleaner, greener Oxford, cycling, tourism and the city centre.

ALSO READ: ‘Lockdown only needed due to PM’s failure’, says Layla Moran

He has combined his work in Oxford with a career as a human rights barrister, often working in Hong Kong. Recent developments there, and restrictions on travel, have meant he has spent increasing amounts of time in Hong Kong and can no longer represent his ward as he would wish.

His seat will remain vacant until a by-election is held and St Margaret’s ward continues to be represented by Councillor Tom Landell Mills.

Councillor Landell Mills will cover the portfolio areas Mr Harris has held for the opposition in the run up to the elections.

Mr Harris said: “I have immensely enjoyed my almost three years as a councillor and will very much miss both colleagues and staff, as well as local residents in St Margaret’s Ward. I am pleased in particular I managed to get the towpath through St Margaret’s re-surfaced at last which was my main promise when I stood for election in 2018.

“The reason for my resignation is that I am relocating to Hong Kong with which I have work and family connections. I am a barrister specialising in human rights and I have been asked to be chairman of the Hong Kong Bar for the year 2021.”

It’s failed-states’ Wednesday

February 3, 2021

The article below by Max Fisher in the New York Times is very interesting on the disaster that is Myanmar. Far better than anything in the British press.

What Fisher writes chimes with what I saw in Myanmar and why I declined offers to go back there in the time of Ms Aung (she’s really called Ms Suu).

Meanwhile, breaking news in a failed state closer to home is that Mario Draghi is trying to form an Italian government. Ho, ho, ho.

Having gone to Frankfurt to run the European Central Bank and stave off the bankruptcy of his miserable but attractive country, Mario is now going to try to actually change Italy.

Good luck with that!

I guess we’ll soon find out if he really is Super Mario.

More, later:

Could I just mention, while we are on the subject of Italy, that the bung-taking architect of Putin’s insane Black Sea palace, described in Navalny’s wonderful documentary, is none other than Lanfranco Cirillo, who is, of course, Italian. They certainly invented fascism. Did they also invent corruption?

Cirillo is from Brescia, about 50 kilometres east of Milan (remember Berlusconi, or Bettino Craxi, or Poalo Pilliteri, who I interviewed when young?) All from the same neck of the woods. Northern Italians like to blame the south for the country’s problems. But my observation has long been that this is a crock of shit. It is the north of Italy that is the spawn-pool of selfishness and corruption. The south, after all, gave us Gramsci, possibly the last principled Italian. He died in 1937.

And here come the Myanmar generals…

February 1, 2021

You could not make it up.

Xi Jinping. Vladimir Putin. Myanmar generals.

Covid is now providing cover for every villain on the planet to do his worst (they do all seem to be men).

The generals in Myanmar, having been crushed in a free election, and then saying they wouldn’t do a coup, have done one.

What a mess. The key observations in the linked article come from the venerable Thant Myint-U:

<The author and historian Thant Myint-U wrote on on Twitter: “The doors just opened to a very different future. I have a sinking feeling that no one will really be able to control what comes next. And remember Myanmar’s a country awash in weapons, with deep divisions across ethnic & religious lines, where millions can barely feed themselves.”>

I should say that I am not a big fan of Aung San Suu Kyi. She seems to me to be a hippy and hippies don’t make good leaders if you want economic development and an end to poverty (remember Ghandi?).

About three years ago I was asked by a foundation that works on land reform to go to Myanmar and I met some of Ms Aung’s advisers and ministers. I was appalled by the non-quality and intellectual laziness of much of what I saw. (It was like I imagine having dinner with George Osborne or Boris Johnson would be.)

Still, none of this justifies putting the lunatics back in charge of the asylum.

I should also say that, although I have twice been in the same room as her, I have never actually spoken to the little lady, so there is some room for doubt about my opinion of her.

I also wonder if the Communist Party of China is meddling in this coup. It wouldn’t be a big surprise.

Philippines back on track?

May 10, 2016

 

It is pretty much clear that Dirty Harry Duterte has won the Philippines’ presidential election.

Thank goodness. Six years of Noynoy, with relatively clean government and improved growth threatened the Philippines’ status as the most dysfunctional polity in mainstream east Asia. The Thais were catching up. Fast.

Dirty Harry has the chance to put his country back on its pedestal by returning to the basics of machismo, nepotism, greed and ignorance. I’m not absolutely certain he will seize the chance because, like Donald Trump, he expresses contradictory positions on almost every issue. Which is more important to Duterte: LGBT rights or rape? He’s expressed support for the first and condoned the second. I guess that only time will tell.

Do we blame the poverty of Filipinos for this presidential choice? Or the poverty of choice of candidates? My personal grudge is against Noynoy, for endorsing Mar Roxas, from one of the great robber baron political dynasties, as his successor. Roxas stood aside in 2010 to give Noynoy a clear run, so it seems that Noynoy decided he had to return the favour. It may yet be 100 million Filipinos who pay the price for this bit of political business as usual.

 

Dirty Duterte / Donald Trump quiz:

The Guardian today offers the following quotations. Which ones are from Duterte, and which are from Trump? Answers at the end.

On crime and punishment:

On crime and punishment

A: “Forget the laws on human rights… You drug pushers, hold-up men and do-nothings, you better go out. Because I’d kill you.”

B: “They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.”

On sex and other things

A: “I was separated from my wife. I’m not impotent. What am I supposed to do? Let this hang forever? When I take Viagra, it stands up.”

B: “My fingers are long and beautiful, as, it has been well documented, are various other parts of my body.”

On modesty

A: “I do not have brilliance, wit or smartness. What I have is common sense. It is what our country needs!”

B: “My IQ is one of the highest — and you all know it! Please don’t feel so stupid or insecure; it’s not your fault.”

On negotiation

A: “Do not fuck with my team.”

B: “Sometimes you need conflict in order to come up with a solution. Through weakness, oftentimes, you can’t make the right sort of settlement, so I’m aggressive, but I also get things done, and in the end, everybody likes me.”

On the political system

A: “The trouble with us in government is that we talk too much, we act too slow, and do too little.”

B: “One of they key problems today is that politics is such a disgrace. Good people don’t go into government.”

On the future

A: “We, the People, recognise that we have responsibilities as well as rights; that our destinies are bound together; that a freedom which only asks what’s in it for me, a freedom without a commitment to others, a freedom without love or charity or duty or patriotism, is unworthy of our founding ideals, and those who died in their defence.”

B: “We need to steer clear of this poverty of ambition, where people want to drive fancy cars and wear nice clothes and live in nice apartments but don’t want to work hard to accomplish these things. Everyone should try to realise their full potential.”

Answers: All As are Rodrigo Duterte and all Bs are Donald Trump. EXCEPT the last one – both are Barack Obama.

 

More:

Here is the first of three articles in the Huffington Post on the background to the Philippine elections. The first article links to the other two.

Easter viewing

March 25, 2016

I have meant for some time to recommend Joshua Oppenheimer’s two documentaries about the deaths of more than 1 million people in Indonesia in 1965-6, at the time when Suharto came to power. It wasn’t a genocide, I think, because lots of different racial groups were targeted (though ethnic Chinese suffered greatly). Rather, it was a ‘politicide’, if such a word exists, an attack on all those deemed to be enemies of the new regime, including anyone deemed to be a communist.

If you have not seen these films, you should. They can be rented cheaply from Amazon. Here is the download from Amazon.co.uk for the first documentary (£3.49 to rent), The Act of Killing, and here is the download from Amazon.co.uk for the second documentary, The Look of Silence.

The Act of Killing received rave reviews partly because of Oppenheimer’s extraordinary methodology. He showed up in Sumatra saying he was interested in learning about the 1965-6 killings, and a bunch of semi-retired preman (gang members/thugs) said: ‘Hey, that’s us. How can we help?’ He then convinced them to act out their memories of murder for his movie. This makes for some very weird and utterly compelling footage.

 

Personally, however, I like The Look of Silence more. In this second documentary, Oppenheimer follows one of the victim families, as a surviving brother gently begins to confront the murderers who butchered his sibling and chucked his body in the local river. The Look of Silence gets much closer to the political and social story underlying the politicide. It is not so visually freakish, but it makes you think more. I note that on Amazon, individual viewers rank it higher than The Act of Killing, so other people may have had the same reaction as me. Really, tho, you need to watch both docs.

 

Finally, here are Werner Herzog and Errol Morris talking about The Act of Killing, just in case the trailer hasn’t convinced you to watch it:

 

 

 

Harry yesterday, gone today

March 22, 2015

Harry Lee Kuan Yew has passed on.

He leaves us just as Singaporeans are finally falling out of love with his People’s Action Party, as I blogged after visiting Singapore last October. It is a pretty good record for someone who started out in politics in the 1950s.

Harry’s departure severs the direct link between south-east Asia’s political elite and its colonial past. (Mahathir is still alive, but he was not a player in the colonial era.) This seems to me to be the key import of this moment. There won’t be another Harry, born into an Anglicised and privileged family, angered yet titillated by colonial power, driven to reinvent himself as a true Chinese (and struggle to learn the Chinese language that was foreign to him as a kid), then striving to find a happy medium as Singapore’s leader somewhere between Asian nationalist and American lickspittle. He opted for a combination of proto-Victorian morality re-dressed-up as Asian values, and the biggest CIA station in the region, that saw American lickspittle win comfortably.

Pragmatism is I think what defined Harry more than anything. He was a fantastic leader for Singapore. But he didn’t really give a toss about south-east Asia so long as Singapore was ok. In this sense he was a modernisation of British governors of the Crown Colony of Singapore. Smarter, more savvy, more efficient than any colonial goon, but at the end of the day nothing very different. He provided phenomenal leadership, and he led by example. But the notion he had ‘vision’ at the level of south-east Asian politics and development does not stand up for me.

So goodbye Harry. I think of you as the full-on Chinese student at Cambridge, with your motorbike and your cigarettes, determined to prove you were better than the gweilos, even if what mattered most to you all too often was their approbation. I wonder: did you used to flick your cigarette butts away on the street, such that you would have been fined in Lee Kuan Yew’s Singapore? We may never know.

Later:

Here is an essay about Lee Kuan Yew by Orville Schell in The Wall Street Journal. It is not the way I would tell Harry’s story, and is something of a eulogy, but worth reading.

Another academic, Minxin Pei, has a different but still very positive take on Project Syndicate.

Much later: 

The quality outs when the dust has settled. Jerry Cohen relates encounters with Harry across the decades in this article. Note Harry’s instructions, after he gave up smoking, that no one should smoke when he attended a social gathering. Including in the United States…

This recent documentary about Singapore’s political exiles is much praised. If you can find some way to see it. I have not.

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

How to make enemies and alienate people…

October 6, 2014

Here is the FT op-ed I wrote over the weekend. It just went live on their online edition.

Can’t say it is likely to get me many tycoon dinner invites, but I do think it is true:

 

 

October 6, 2014 5:14 pm

Hong Kong should focus its fight on the tycoon economy

The real target is the anti-competitive, anti-consumer economy, writes Joe Studwell
A woman holds a placard at a large pro-democracy protest in Hong Kong on October 1, 2014. Hong Kong has been plunged into the worst political crisis since its 1997 handover as pro-democracy activists take over the streets following China's refusal to grant citizens full universal suffrage. AFP PHOTO / ALEX OGLE (Photo credit should read Alex Ogle/AFP/Getty Images)©AFP

Hong Kong stepped back from the brink on Friday night, when chief executive CY Leung belatedly authorised a senior official to “hold talks” with protesters and those same protesters decided, for now, not to enter government buildings. It was a fortunate outcome. Beijing would characterise the occupation of official property as an attack on the Chinese state.

What Hong Kong needs is not a strategy that backs Xi Jinping, the Chinese president, into a corner, but one that resonates with his own mindset. This is why the protesters should refocus on Hong Kong’s tycoon economy, and the anti-competitive, anti-consumer arrangements that define it. You may think,like the Heritage Foundation, that Hong Kong is a free market. However, except for external trade, it is not. Instead it is what one of the richest men in the city once described to me as “a nice bowl of fish soup”. That soup is fed to the few, making ordinary people poorer, stoking resentment, and indirectly contributing to acute pollution.

Cartels are everywhere in Hong Kong. Supermarkets are a duopoly, one whose pricing power allows the chains to charge higher prices for the same products in some of Hong Kong’s most deprived areas. Drug stores are a duopoly. Buses are a cartel: high-priced, mostly cash-only, running shoddy, dirty diesel vehicles with drivers who earn a pittance. Electricity is provided by two, expensive monopolies that handle everything from generation to distribution, one on Hong Kong island and the other in Kowloon. The container ports are an oligopoly, with the world’s highest handling charges. Yet they will not supply onshore electricity to vessels, which must instead run diesel generators that pollute the city air.

The biggest stitch-up remains the lousy construction standards and sky-high costs in a residential property market dominated by the “Four Families”, which in the 1990s were estimated to be selling property for between two and four times what it cost to develop.

You may think of the territory as a free market but, except for external trade, it is not

Add in the jiggery-pokery of a Boys’ Own stock market with 1970s-style governance, and a taxation system that tycoons circumvent by taking out their money through tax-free dividends, and you begin to get the picture.

Hong Kong has had a Competition Ordinance and a Competition Commission since 2012. But so far nothing has changed. In a striking contrast with mainland China, where the Communist party after 1989 first increased transfer payments to the urban poor, and then increased transfers and cut taxes for the rural poor in the 2000s, the Hong Kong government lets a colonial rentier economy carry merrily on.

Mr Xi launched his new administration with not only a brutal anti-corruption campaign, but also an anti-monopoly drive. Unfortunately he seems unaware that Hong Kong is at least as rigged as the mainland.

So here is a plan. Speak to Mr Xi in terms he understands. Refocus the protests on the cartels. I am no protester, but it is not hard to think of peaceful tactics that would be difficult for the tycoons to ignore as they sweep into their basement car parks and ascend in private elevators to their penthouse offices. Where possible, boycott the cartels.

Would this be the end for the tycoons? Not at all. In my experience they are people of extraordinary entrepreneurial acumen. Like all of us, they enjoy a capacious free lunch. But if that is taken away they will adjust and add more value to the economy by doing so.

It is time for Hong Kong to work for the majority. If the protesters make Mr Xi understand the economic problem, it becomes easier to compromise on the politics – probably with a more open nomination process in 2022. I hold, perhaps wrongly, that Beijing’s intransigence is born of ignorance, not malice.


The writer is author of ‘How Asia Works: success and failure in the world’s most dynamic region’

 

More:

This just went up from Han Donfang. Very much worth a read. The lead explains who he is if you do not know.

And here is a nice piece from The Age about CY Leung trousering US$7m during the sale of his insolvent firm. Now that is leadership.

Tribute in the bag

August 8, 2014

image

Thailand’s latest junta, the National Council for Peace and Order (aka National Council for Underdevelopment as Usual), has confirmed it is committing to a US$23 billion high-speed rail investment. Beyond this I can find very few concrete details. But the expectation is that much of the construction work, as well as the rolling stock, signalling equipment, and even quite basic industrial inputs will be supplied by China. Late last year, before the junta got rid of Thaksin’s little sister, Chinese premier  Li Keqiang was down in Bangkok doing the hard sell. When the junta boys grabbed the reins of power they made a show of putting the deal that was then shaping up on hold. But a few months later it is back in play, albeit possibly with some cuts to the project specification suggested by this Bangkok Post article (see the references to lower speed services).

Although we know nothing of the Chinese financing terms, it looks like the Celestial Empire has done an effective number on its traditional south-east Asian tribute states. First they leaned on the Laotians, the poorest and most biddable group, to agree to the first leg from Kunming through their territory. Now they have the Thais in the bag. Officially, the Malaysians say high speed rail is too expensive for them. But my guess is that the Malaysian government will fold once construction starts on the Kunming to Bangkok legs and sign a deal. The Chinese an easily twist their arms by threatening to buy their palm oil and gas somewhere else. (When I saw Mahathir late last year in KL he told me that he personally he is already in favour of a Chinese high-speed deal, so Beijing has one still-loud voice singing its song already.)

Who is all this investment good news for? It is good news for China’s rail equipment and rail construction firms, into which Beijing has sunk vast sums in order to master high-speed rail technology. And it is good news for bourgeois types like myself, who want fast, clean travel between their preferred Nanyang beaches and mountain retreats and the panda lairs of south-west China.

But we shouldn’t pretend it is good news for south-east Asian economic development. By the time there is a high-speed link all the way from Kunming to Singapore — which could now easily be completed within 10 years — the projects will have cost at least US$60 billion in today’s money. That expenditure will have done almost nothing to increase south-east Asia’s grasp of manufacturing technology, or even its project management capacity, because all the value-added goes to China. At a time when south-east Asia desperately needs to increase manufacturing employment to provide jobs for countries’ young populations, the China high-speed rail deals instead reveal the developmental bankruptcy of regional politicians. Their only strategy in addition to being a proto-colonial resource base for China, is to become a tourist destination for a new Chinese middle class.

 

More

This from Geoff Wade at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, though I am not convinced all the numbers quoted are accurate.


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