Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

Fat Pang’s Man of the Year

December 21, 2020

I have mixed emotions about Fat Pang, or Chris Patten, the last governor of Hong Kong. I guess I am just suspicious of British Tory politicians holding forth about matters of political principle in former British colonies. When Fat Pang was recently arrived as governor, I asked to interview him about his understanding of British colonial history (he read history as an undergraduate). His press manager asked what books I had read on the subject, and for a rough idea of questions. When I provided the requested information, the interview failed to materialise.

Nonetheless, Fat Pang’s Man of the Year article from Project Syndicate (original version and subscription details here), is worth a read. It is, of course, about the estimable Jimmy Lai.

Dec 17, 2020 Chris Patten

By jailing fearless Hong Kong pro-democracy campaigner Jimmy Lai on charges of breaking its new national security law, the Communist Party of China intends to reinforce the new limits to the rule of law, dissent, and autonomy in the city. But imprisonment often ennobles fighters for democracy and bolsters support for their cause.

LONDON – On December 12, Jimmy Lai, a successful businessman and brave campaigner for freedom and democracy, was led into court in Hong Kong in handcuffs and chains, accused of breaking the national security law recently imposed by the Communist Party of China (CPC). The Chinese authorities’ goal in charging Lai was to reinforce the new limits to the rule of law, dissent, and autonomy in the city.

The judge was handpicked by Hong Kong’s pliant chief executive, Carrie Lam, whose primary responsibility is to execute the CPC’s malevolent instructions regarding the city. Supporters of the 72-year-old Lai, including Catholic Cardinal Joseph Zen, were in the courtroom to witness him being denied bail until a trial scheduled for April 2021.

The Chinese government hates Lai, because he embodies a passionate belief in freedom, and we must hope that any time Lai spends in prison will be in Hong Kong rather than the mainland. His handcuffs and chains are a tragic symbol of what has happened to Hong Kong’s once-free society in 2020.

The CPC has of course victimized us all this year. The party initially covered up the COVID-19 outbreak in China and silenced brave doctors when they tried to warn the world about what we would soon face.

Some national leaders have added to the gloom. US President Donald Trump’s refusal to accept the result of an election that he lost by seven million votes has undermined America’s democratic system. His appalling behavior – abetted by Republican leaders and the GOP’s media allies – demeans him and his party and weakens the case for liberal democracy everywhere.

Meanwhile, Russian President Vladimir Putin continues to connive in the security services’ murders of his opponents and to undermine democratic states wherever he can. Other authoritarian leaders, from Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, have consolidated illiberal regimes by changing their countries’ constitutions and electoral systems.

But it is Chinese President Xi Jinping who has represented the most serious threat to liberal democratic values this year. Exploiting the world’s preoccupation with the pandemic, Chinese forces have killed Indian soldiers in the Himalayas, sunk and threatened other countries’ fishing vessels in international waters, and menaced Taiwan. Xi’s regime has also continued to pursue genocidal policies toward Muslim Uighurs in Xinjiang, in addition to targeting Hong Kong’s freedoms.

When Hong Kong returned from British to Chinese sovereignty in 1997, China’s leaders promised in an international treaty lodged at the United Nations that the city would continue to enjoy its way of life and high level of autonomy for 50 years. That promise, like so many of the CPC’s undertakings, has now been junked.

China was clearly horrified that elections and demonstrations increasingly showed that the majority of people in Hong Kong refused (like the Taiwanese) to accept that to love China, they had to love the CPC. But at least two-thirds of Hong Kong citizens were themselves refugees or relatives of refugees from the horrors of China’s communist history.

These people wanted to retain the system that had helped them prosper and made Hong Kong an international economic hub. The city’s governance, like that of other free societies, was based on the separation of executive, legislative, and judicial powers, freedom of expression, and a market economy.

These aspects of an open society terrify Xi’s regime. The CPC’s control depends on party bosses at the center maintaining an iron grip on everything. Universities and schools must be “engineers of the soul,” to use Stalin’s phrase. Courts should do what the CPC tells them. The free flow of information is too dangerous, and any notion of democratic accountability must be stifled.

Countries from Australia to Canada that criticize some of the CPC’s behavior are singled out for commercial bullying, or worse. China has taken two Canadian citizens hostage because of Canada’s 2018 decision to detain a senior executive of Chinese telecommunications firm Huawei; the men are about to spend a third Christmas in solitary confinement.

This year, it was Hong Kong’s turn. The comprehensive stifling of the city’s freedom has proceeded remorselessly, encompassing schools and universities, the legislature, courts, civil service, and the media. All dissent is to be crushed, with democracy campaigners thrown into prison.

Lai is the latest and most prominent victim of the CPC’s idea of law, which the American China scholar Perry Link once described as like “an anaconda in the chandelier.” Lai was born in China but escaped to Hong Kong as a 12-year-old stowaway without a penny to his name. He worked in a garment factory, earned enough to start his own business, and founded the international retail fashion chain Giordano.

Lai never forgot that it was freedom and the rule of law that allowed him and others to prosper, and he denounced communism’s contempt for both. After the 1989 massacre of demonstrators in Tiananmen Square and elsewhere in China, he criticized then-Chinese premier Li Peng directly. As a result, his home and businesses were attacked and bombed by United Front communist activists and their fellow travelers in Hong Kong’s criminal triads.

Forced to close his garment business, Lai established a hugely popular magazine and newspaper group. He strongly supported democracy and never toned down his criticisms of Chinese communism. A devout Catholic, Lai regarded Hong Kong as his home, and was determined to stay and fight for the city he loved.

For the apparent crimes of principle and courage, and his refusal to surrender his beliefs, Lai has been targeted by a vengeful CPC with the collaboration of a few Hong Kong lickspittles whose reputations will forever be tarred by shame and infamy. But imprisonment often ennobles fighters for democracy and bolsters support for their cause: think of Martin Luther King, Jr., Nelson Mandela, or Václav Havel. And now think of Jimmy Lai, my man of the year.

Institutional racism in America

August 31, 2020

Here is an interesting article about the role that the Senate plays in institutionalising racism in the United States.

There is also growing controversy about the role of the second chamber in the UK. However, the UK’s House of Lords has little real power and the reason to object to it is that it is stuffed with people who are being rewarded for financial contributions to political parties and other shenanigans that add no value to our society. The US Senate, by contrast, is an active enforcer of racism.

By Jonathan Chait.

In a time when institutions across the country have undergone a searching self-examination, the reckoning has only begun for the most powerful source of institutional racism in American life: the United States Senate. It is not merely a problem of legacy and culture — though the Senate’s traditions are deeply interwoven with white supremacy, as Joe Biden inadvertently confessed when he touted his cooperation with segregationists — but of very-much-ongoing discrimination. Quite simply, achieving anything like functional racial equality without substantially reforming the Senate will be impossible.

The Senate’s pro-white bias is a problem the political system is only beginning to absorb. When Barack Obama urged his party to honor John Lewis’s civil-rights legacy by passing a bill to guarantee democratic reforms like voting rights, statehood for Puerto Rico and D.C., and an end to the filibuster, which he called a “relic of Jim Crow,” the mere suggestion was met with a scorching response from the right. “The door to radicalism is getting busted wide open,” warned a Wall Street Journal editorial. John Podhoretz described Obama’s plan as “a degree of norm-shattering in service of the partisan interests of the Democrats that will, quite simply, tear this country asunder.”

Measured against the backdrop of modern Washington tradition, Obama’s proposal would indeed constitute a radical break with long-standing norms. But measured against the standard of simple political equality, his notion is quite modest. It would leave standing, albeit in altered and less distorted form, an institution that stands as a rebuke to democracy. The Senate is a bulwark of white power.

The Senate was not designed to benefit white voters — almost all voters were white when the Constitution went into effect — but it has had that effect. The reason is simple: Residents of small states have proportionally more representation, and small states tend to have fewer minority voters. Therefore, the Senate gives more voting power to white America, and less to everybody else. The roughly 2.7 million people living in Wyoming, Vermont, Alaska, and North Dakota, who are overwhelmingly white, have the same number of Senators representing them as the 110 million or so people living in California, Texas, Florida, and New York, who are quite diverse. The overall disparity is fairly big. As David Leonhardt calculated, whites have 0.35 Senators per million people, while Blacks have 0.26, Asian-Americans 0.25, and Latinos just 0.19.

The Senate is affirmative action for white people. If we had to design political institutions from scratch, nobody — not even Republicans — would be able to defend a system that massively overrepresented whites. And yet, while we are yanking old 30 Rock episodes and holding White Fragility struggle sessions in boardrooms, a massive source of institutionalized racial bias is sitting in plain sight.

The Senate’s existence is not the product of divine inspiration by the Founders, as schoolchildren have been taught for generations, but the ungainly result of hardheaded political compromise between people who believed in some version of what we’d call “democracy” and people who didn’t. The Founders mostly hated the idea of a one-state, one-vote chamber. They grudgingly accepted it as (in James Madison’s formulation) a “lesser evil,” needed to buy off small states like Delaware.

Obviously, the Constitution contained lots of political compromises. In most cases, the system has evolved toward the principle of one-person, one-vote: The Electoral College has transformed from a group of elites using independent judgment to pick a president to a pass-through entity; the vote was extended to non-landholders, women, and black people (first in theory, and only a century later, in practice).

The Senate has oddly evolved in the opposite direction. The disparity in size between states has exploded. When the Constitution was written, the largest state had less than 13 times as many people as the smallest. Today, the largest state has nearly 70 times as many people as the smallest. As absurd as the likes of Madison and Hamilton considered a legislative chamber equalizing a 13-to-1 disparity, the absurdity is now fivefold. And it continues to grow.

The Senate has also evolved a routine supermajority requirement, which the Founders did not contemplate. The Constitution requires a supermajority in a handful of expressly defined circumstances, like treaties and removing a president from office. The filibuster evolved in the 19th century, first requiring unanimous agreement, then was reduced first to two-thirds in 1917, and then three-fifths in 1975. Custom used to dictate that filibusters were rarely used tools to register unusually strong disagreement (most frequently by southerners, against civil-rights legislation). Its evolution into a routine supermajority requirement is recent.

And so the Senate now has the function of allowing the minority of the country to thwart the majority, to a degree even its critics never imagined. Arguing against the Senate, Hamilton warned, “It may happen that this majority of States is a small minority of the people of America; and two thirds of the people of America could not long be persuaded, upon the credit of artificial distinctions and syllogistic subtleties, to submit their interests to the management and disposal of one third.” The filibuster, combined with the disproportionate growth of the largest states, allows a far more dire tyranny of the minority than this. A filibuster could be maintained by senators representing a mere 11 percent of the public.

In reality, it’s impractical to line up every small state on the same side. (Democrats do have small states.) But in the current Senate, Republicans who represent just a quarter of the population would have enough votes to sustain a filibuster. Even if Democrats win a landslide election in 2020, following another landslide win two years before, Republicans will easily be able to maintain a filibuster against any bill subject to one.

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Since the Senate is inscribed into the Constitution, measures to curtail its distorting effect have centered on abolishing the filibuster and admitting Puerto Rico and D.C. (stripped of the federal areas, which would remain the District of Columbia, and its residential areas constituted as a new state, perhaps called “Douglass Commonwealth.”) The process for admitting new states is just like passing laws.

The addition of D.C. and Puerto Rico, with four new senators between them, would partially offset the Senate’s massive overrepresentation of whites and Republicans. It would not, however, eliminate that advantage completely — or even come all that close to doing so. A Data for Progress analysis found, a 52-state Senate would still give whites decided overrepresentation, but it would ameliorate the injustice.

Podhoretz complains that admitting Puerto and D.C. would “violate democratic norms,” because “the last grants of statehood,” Alaska and Hawaii, did not alter the Senate’s partisan balance. He is implying, without saying outright, that states have always been admitted in Democrat-Republican pairs.

But this is not remotely true. In the 19th century, statehood was a partisan weapon, used mostly by Republicans, who admitted states not on the basis of population but in an open attempt to “stack the Senate.” After they added Montana, Washington, and split Dakota territory into two states (adding another pair of senators) in 1889, “President Harrison’s son crowed that the Republicans would win all the new states and gain eight more senators,” according to historian Heather Cox Boushey.

Alas, it is not just conservatives who believe that states must always be admitted in partisan pairs. Two years ago, Rhode Island senator Sheldon Whitehouse, a Democrat, confessed not to care at all about D.C. statehood: “I don’t have a particular interest in that issue. If we got one one-hundredth in Rhode Island of what D.C. gets in federal jobs and activity, I’d be thrilled.” And,he said,while he sympathized with Puerto Rico’s case, he opposed it because it would help his party. “Puerto Rico is actually a better case because they have a big population that qualifies as U.S. and they are not, as D.C. is, an enclave designed to support the federal government,” Whitehouse said. “The problem of Puerto Rico is it does throw off the balance so you get concerns like, who do [Republicans] find, where they can get an offsetting addition to the states.”

Offsetting? Who says it has to be offsetting? If Democrats refuse as a general principle to alter a “balance” that massively overrepresents white and Republican voters, they are consigning themselves to permanent minority status in the chamber.

The catch in admitting states is that Republicans could filibuster a statehood bill. But Republicans would filibuster any measure, however watered down, that increases Democratic voting power. (Mitch McConnell has even denounced a bill making Election Day a national holiday as a sinister “power grab.”)

In practice, therefore, any bill to admit new states would require eliminating the filibuster as well, which is why Obama took care to add that his party should change the rules to accomplish it. If Democrats gain 50 senators and the presidency, they would have it within their means to eliminate the filibuster and pass a bill expanding voting protections and admitting D.C. and Puerto Rico as states.

And it is the filibuster that poses the most formidable obstacle to passing any democratic reform. The Senate is shot through with institutionalists, who cling tightly to its traditions and relish the special status the chamber confers on its members. The objective of eliminating the legislative filibuster has gained adherents, but many of the chamber’s older Democrats remain stubbornly attached to it.

Democrats who support the filibuster make two arguments: one self-interested, the other principled. The self-interested argument concedes that yes, it would be helpful for Democrats to pass laws with a majority, but what happens when Republicans have a majority? “I think it would be a short-term advantage and a long term difficulty,” frets Maine senator Angus King. “You know, what concerns me is that this place changes.” Joe Biden, who has hedged on his previous pledges to maintain the filibuster forever, has said, “The filibuster has also saved a lot of bad things from happening too.”

It’s true that the filibuster sometimes stops conservative laws. Over the long run, however, liberals enact more changes than conservatives. This is almost definitional. Looking back over the last 20, 50, or 100 years, most major legislative changes have a progressive cast rather than a reactionary one. What makes the case for reform even stronger is that Republicans can already accomplish most of their goals without overcoming a filibuster. Senate rules allow the confirmation of judges and changing levels of taxation and spending with just a majority. Trump passed his tax cuts with 50 votes, and nearly passed his Obamacare repeal with 50 votes. (King’s warning, “If we didn’t have the 60-vote rule today, the ACA would be gone,” is flatly false.) The filibuster has played hardly any role at all in limiting his agenda.

What’s left of the filibuster primarily inhibits Democrat proposals. Given that the chamber’s one-state, one-vote makeup already favors Republicans, it is bizarre that Democrats would accept a handicap atop another handicap.

Even if none of this were true, and the filibuster thwarted both parties in equal measure, it is difficult to understand why it would be necessary. Many political systems allow a single national vote to constitute a working majority: The Parliamentary majority elects its leader and enacts the agenda it ran on, and if voters don’t like it, they elect a new government. The American system already requires controlling three separately elected bodies — House, Senate, and president — to enact any new law. Why does the system need yet another obstacle to change?

Here is where the principled invocation of the filibuster comes into play. The filibuster forces the two parties to work together. “The whole intention of Congress is basically to have a little bit of compromise with the other side,” argues Joe Manchin, expressing his fervent opposition to eliminating the legislative filibuster. “Our job is to find common and cooling ground, if you will, to make something work that makes sense.”

The simplest rebuttal to this claim is look around you. Do you see a lot of legislative compromise? How many reforms of any importance have amassed 60 Senate votes over the past 30 years? It is odd that senators can still wax idealistic about the filibuster promoting good old-fashioned bipartisanship when its absence is so obvious. Indeed, the same senators who most loudly decry the decline of bipartisanship are also the most convinced that the filibuster enables bipartisanship. Manchin himself has loudly grumbled about his disdain for the chamber, decried its uselessness, and threatened to quit repeatedly. Maybe he should consider the possibility that the rules he seems so attached to aren’t working.

It seems much more likely that the filibuster’s impact on moderation is just the opposite. The Senate’s arcane anti-democratic character enables extremism. By thwarting sensible liberal reforms, it emboldens left-wing radicals who paint the party as hopelessly inept, unable to deliver its promises, and unequal to the challenges of American life. If Biden’s Senate allies allow Republicans to thwart his promises, the left’s takeover of the party will accelerate.

More important, it has enabled the Republican Party’s long rightward lurch. Why should conservatives compromise their principles when they can use their counter-majoritarian power to block change? The Republican Party’s strategic response to a country that is moving demographically against it is not to adapt to the electorate but instead to thwart its will.

The defenses of the filibuster offered by the Senate’s traditionalists have a creepily familiar tone. Here are old, white, comfortable men, hesitant to make a (very small) amount of space in their elite institution for minorities. Whatever wan arguments they can offer for the status quo reek of the musty scent of clubbiness and nostalgia. They can hardly make the case that the system works, but it surely works for them.

Several years of heavy use have dulled the sharp edge of the word “reckoning.” But if there is any institution in American life that needs a reckoning, it is the U.S. Senate.

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The original article is here.

Essential viewing for Johnson, Hancock and Trump

August 19, 2020

Just in case the leaders of Britain and the United States want to know what competent management of Covid looks like, Taiwan’s Digital Minister Audrey Tang explains how the island identified the Covid threat early and used, built and modified technical systems to deal with it effectively.

The leaders of Britain and the United States are warned that the content is a bit ‘sciency’ and ‘experty’ and they may find it harder to follow than Love Island. However, it is well worth watching.

Ms Tang’s explication begins at 12 minutes.

She explains the advantages of attentive research and using your brain after minute 14.

She explains the advantages of trusting your population around minute 16.

She explains the advantages of being honest, open and transparent about levels of PPE supply after minute 17.

She explains how to counter idiotic misinformation and establish facts after minute 23.

She talks about data privacy and quarantine monitoring after minute 26. And again at minute 39.

She explains why masks are important and offers to share the technology to make millions of them every day after minute 49. After minute 56 she again stresses the point that masks stop you touching your mouth and nose with potentially infected hands.

She makes several points about false dilemmas that may be presented in relation to Covid after minute 58.

She notes that mainland Chinese whistleblower Li Wenliang likely saved the lives of many people in Taiwan (because Taiwan was paying attention) and reminds us that what is most different about Covid-19 is asymptomatic transmission, after minute 63.

As of today, Taiwan has had just 486 recorded cases of Covid and seven deaths. Here are ongoing data.

Unfortunately Ms Tang’s slides do not appear on the video below.

Good luck Boris, Matt and Donald!

Predicted by Orwell, Designed in China, Running Hong Kong

August 16, 2020

The link below will take you to an excellent review of the activities of China’s United Front Work Department (UFWD) in Hong Kong. It is the UFWD that orchestrated the political, administrative and civil society takeover of Hong Kong in the past 23 years, contrary to China’s ‘binding’ legal agreement with Britain that the place would run itself (with a few understandable exceptions) for at least 50 years. The author is the former New York Times correspondent and long-time China watcher Didi Kirsten Tatlow.

The piece explains the role of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), which does a great job of co-opting persons who are (usually) not Communist Party members and getting them to act as Communist Party running dogs. Among highlighted Hong Kong CPPCC stars are late tycoons Henry Fok and Tung Chee-hwa, who readers of my 2007 Asian Godfathers will be familiar with.

There is also a nice presentation of evidence about how China has infiltrated and increasingly directed the Hong Kong police force and made use of local triads as ‘patriotic’ allies in its war against ‘Western’ influence and all things liberal. In the interests of historical fairness, it should be noted that the British also made use of patriotic triads when re-taking control of Hong Kong from the Japanese at the end of the Second World War, as beautifully related in Philip Snow’s The Fall of Hong Kong. The mafia in Hong Kong has batted for both sides, although it probably enjoys batting people over the head for Beijing more.

The document is here.

United Front Work Department in HK 0820

快要控制全球?

August 10, 2020

No, China isn’t going to take over the world.

If you thought it was, take a look at the dull but important new paper on the country’s history of productivity growth at the link below.

The paper sets out China’s extraordinary record on productivity growth over the past 40 years. At its root was the move out of agriculture and into — in particular — manufacturing, as described in How Asia Works.

In the 1990s, Zhu Rongji kept the game going by laying off state workers and greatly increasing competition among state-owned firms. Contrary to what many economists (such as those who advised Russia) expected, state firms began to quickly close the productivity gap on private firms. It turned out that competition was much more important than ownership.

Productivity gains remained strong in the early 2000s as China’s economic boom came to the world’s attention.

In the past decade, however, the data show that China’s model hit the buffers. After the global financial crisis, more and more investment went into infrastructure and real estate with low productivity gains. State enterprises sucked up easy credit and stopped catching up the private sector in terms of efficiency. And rates of bankruptcy remained low, preventing the exit of less efficient firms, which is an important longer term driver of productivity gains in any highly productive economy.

I have mentioned before that Xi Jinping reminds me of South Korea’s last autocrat, Chun Doo Hwan. As a corollary of the collapse in productivity growth, the credit picture in China is also beginning to resemble Korea in the mid-1980s as smaller, weaker banks and non-bank financial institutions take a much bigger share of financial system assets and make riskier loans to less productive activities. As the paper notes, the Big Four Chinese banks’ share of bank system assets has fallen from more than half before the global financial crisis to well under two-fifths today.

China’s total factor productivity is still less than half that of the United States. There is no reason why China could not catch up, but to do so it would have to change policies on competition and economic openness that just aren’t going to be changed by the Communist Party of China. And that is why China isn’t going to take over the world, or indeed anything close.

Chinas-Productivity-Slowdown-2020 clean

The end of Hong Kong

August 10, 2020

What could be more symbolic of the end of freedom in Hong Kong than a huge police raid on the offices of the leading Chinese-language tabloid newspaper and the arrest of executives including its owner, Jimmy Lai? The raid took place today and was conducted by a police unit created under the new Beijing-imposed national security law. One of the alleged crimes is reported to be ‘foreign collusion’, a new mainland-style catch-all offence that can lead to years in prison.

The national security law is only a few weeks old and we don’t know exactly how it will be applied. However, it makes bail unlikely. Whether court sessions will even be open to the public is unclear. Police already barred several media organisations from a press conference following the arrests.

What amazes me is how the Hong Kong government and the Hong Kong police force have entirely come on side for the new security law and seemingly flipped into an authoritarian police state without even a murmur.

The Communist Party of China hates Jimmy Lai. He escaped from the mainland as a child by sneaking across the Hong Kong border. His tabloid publications are the absolute antithesis of what the Party thinks the press should be. And he doesn’t give a fuck. He has been the victim of numerous attacks, including fire bombings, that are almost certainly Party-sanctioned or Party-condoned. But now the Party doesn’t need to use thugs to deal with Jimmy Lai because it has its national security law and a pliant, Vichy-style administration.

Here is the Washington Post coverage.

Here is a CBC interview with Jimmy Lai a few days ago.

Here is some coverage in long-form Chinese.

Here is the Twitter feed of Mark Simon, an American media executive who has worked for Jimmy Lai for decades.

Here is the Twitter feed of my old Hong Kong friend and rabid misanthrope Hemlock. I wonder which prison they’ll put him in? That said, he does know more Chinese history than the average paid-up Party member. Maybe they will create a prison library for him.

 

More, later:

Jimmy Lai was given police bail. That doesn’t mean he will get bail when he is charged which, as I wrote, the National Security Law (NSL) presumes against. What this means is that the police — or rather the people who are telling the police what to do — haven’t yet decided what to charge Lai with. However, the game looks distinctly mainland China in the way it is being played. In addition to NSL charges the police have also mentioned a fraud inquiry. This leaves the classic Chinese fallback of doing him for some trumped-up ‘economic crime’ if the powers that be decide that international (and local Hong Kong) reaction to a national security conviction will be unacceptably strong at this time. Whatever happens, what people from less brutal societies understand by rule of law is out of the window in Hong Kong.

 

Here is a short new piece about Jimmy Lai from the New Yorker.

Sub-Greece

April 23, 2020

Tony Blair’s ignorance-driven, religion-undergirded arrogance cost many more lives when he backed George W. Bush’s Second Iraq War, but Boris Johnson’s band of chancers is the crappiest British government of my lifetime. Indeed, it would require competence to kill more than the thousands who are dying needlessly in the UK from COVID-19 as a result of this shambolic government’s non-conduct.

One of the more succinct commentaries on the Johnson administration’s performance to date was posted to a Financial Times comments board today in the form of comparative timelines for the UK and Greece:

Greece
24 February: All school trips to Italy cancelled.
26 February: First coronavirus case in Greece, a woman returning from Milan. The school her child attends closes for 14 days.
27 February: Carnival celebrations and international school trips abroad cancelled.
3 March: Schools with pupils who have come into contact with coronavirus patients are closed.
4 March: Schools, sports facilities, theatres and cinemas in affected areas close.
8 March: Conferences and large public gatherings across the country banned, community centres for the elderly closed. Sports events held without spectators.
11 March: All schools, cinemas, theatres, courthouses, gyms and nightclubs close. Independence day parades cancelled.
13 March: Nationwide lockdown implemented. All shopping malls, department stores, restaurants, bars, cinemas, libraries and museums closed. Only essential shops open. Flights to/from Italy stop.
23 March: All non essential travel banned.

UK
January 29: First coronavirus cases in UK, two Chinese visitors staying in York. Heathrow airport screens all arrivals from Wuhan.
March 11: Liverpool vs Atletico Madrid goes ahead, with 3,000 fans from Madrid attending.
March 15: The elderly and vulnerable are advised to practise social distancing.
March 16: Boris Johnson advises everyone in the UK to avoid pubs, clubs, theatres, non essential travel and to work from home where possible.
March 16-19: Cheltenham festival goes ahead, with an attendance of 251,684
March 18: Schools close to children of non essential workers.
March 20: All bars, restaurants, cafes and gyms ordered to close.
March 23: Nationwide lockdown implemented.

Greece: lockdown 17 days after first case. Total cases on 23 April: 2,463. Total deaths: 125 (population 11 million).

UK: lockdown 52 days after first case. Total cases on 23 April: 138,078. Total deaths: 18,738 (population 66 million).

Crazy optimism about China

May 8, 2019

There has been so much dreary news about repression in China under Xi Jinping. Lawyers, academics, civil society types, all locked up and brutalised. In the past five years under Xi, China has assumed a new and mundane identity. It is no longer the country of economic miracles, it is a regressive, bullying state, best known for herding a million Uyghurs into ‘re-education’ camps.

To me, Xi’s China recalls South Korea under Chun Doo Hwan in the 1980s. Chun, like Xi, came to power after economic lift-off. Chun, like Xi, established some sort of popular domestic political appeal with an anti-corruption campaign. But Chun, like Xi, was politically backward-looking and unimaginative. Chun was indeed even more politically repressive than what had gone before. Just like Xi Jinping.

It seemed in South Korea that Chun’s repression would go on for ever. And yet, in 1987, his authority quickly dissolved and a year later he was finished. Could such a thing happen to Xi Jinping, a leader who has done away with term limits in place since the demise of Mao Zedong? An essay by Ian Johnson in the New York Review of Books conjectures that such an outcome is not impossible. What a lift for the world it might be.

 

A Specter Is Haunting Xi’s China: ‘Mr. Democracy’

Stuart Franklin/Magnum Photos

Pro-democracy protesters at Tiananmen Square, Beijing, 1989. China’s Communist authorities are wary about the approaching thirtieth anniversary on June 4

Beijing—Something strange is happening in Xi Jinping’s China. This is supposed to be the perfect dictatorship, the most sustained period of authoritarianism since the Cultural Revolution ended more than forty years ago, a period of such damning disappointment that all but the regime’s most acquiescent apologists have become cynics or critics. And yet the past few months have also seen something potentially more interesting: the most serious critique of the system in more than a decade, led by people inside China who are choosing to speak out now, during the most sensitive season of the most sensitive year in decades.

The movement started quietly enough, with several brilliant essays written by a Chinese academic that drew an attack from his university bosses, which in turn stirred a backlash among Chinese public intellectuals. None of this means that the Communist Party is getting ready to loosen its icy grip over the country, but it is a remarkable series of events that is challenging what was supposed to be possible in Xi’s China.

Although the party never ruled over a golden age of free speech in China, it was possible to argue that for a decade up until the late 2000s China was getting freer. The combination of economic reforms and proliferating new media appeared to be permitting citizens more personal autonomy and freedom of expression. That began to change slowly soon after Beijing hosted the 2008 Olympics. First came the detention of Liu Xiaobo for helping to organize “Charter 08,” a document calling for modest constitutional reforms—a stand later recognized by the award of a Nobel Peace Prize. Then the overthrow of autocracies during the Arab Spring in 2011 fed into party neuroses about secret plots and uprisings, and this last decade has seen the end of meaningful public debate of almost any kind.

Enter Xu Zhangrun. A fifty-six-year-old professor of constitutional law at Beijing’s prestigious Tsinghua University, Xu is well known in Beijing as a moderate and prolific critic of the government’s increasing embrace of authoritarianism. Since 2012, he has published and spoken widely about his concern over China’s course. Some of his essays are mentioned in “China’s Moment,” translated by David Ownby, a University of Montreal history professor who, with several other scholars, started an invaluable website called “Reading the China Dream,” which makes available leading Chinese thinkers in English. Others are translated by the scholar Geremie Barmé and collected on this page of the China Heritage website.

While most of Xu’s earlier writing was couched in fairly dense language, he decided last July to make his message much more explicit. Writing for the website of the now-shuttered Unirule Institute of Economics, Xu issued what amounts to a petition to the emperor in the classical style. He bluntly explained that the government’s ever-tightening grip was leading the country to disaster, and he demanded measures to reverse course.

Xu’s original article last year, called “Our Immediate Hopes and Expectations,” was republished by The Initium, an independent Chinese-language website based in Hong Kong. That already helped to make it one of the most widely read recent articles critiquing the government; then it was translated as “Imminent Fears, Immediate Hopes” by Barmé, who added an invaluable preface explaining the long tradition of petitions or memorials to the throne.

Xu writes that ever since the Cultural Revolution, China’s rise has been based on four basic principles: an end to political campaigns; permitting private property and wealth accumulation; tolerance for some personal freedoms; political term limits to prevent the return of dictators like Mao. All of these, he implies, have been breached by Xi; the violation of the fourth principle enables Xi to serve beyond the end of his two five-year terms in 2022.

Xu then sets out eight expectations—in effect, demands of the government—that include the abolition of special privileges for Communist Party cadres, the disclosure of leaders’ personal assets, the end of what he sees as a personality cult around Xi, and a return of term limits. Most incendiary of all, he calls for the overturning of the official verdict on the June 4, 1989, Tiananmen Massacre, which was that the use of deadly force was justified because the protests were a “counter-revolutionary rebellion.”

To get a measure of Xu’s bluntness, here is how he describes (in Barmé’s translation) the privileges enjoyed by party members, including health care:

On one side of the hospital Commoners face the challenge of gaining admission for treatment, while everyone knows that grand suites are reserved on the other side for the care of high-level cadres. The people observe this with mute and heartfelt bitterness. Every iota of this bottled up anger may, at some unexpected moment, explode with thunderous fury.

Also worrying for Xu is the state of Sino–US relations, which he sees as threatened by leaders on both sides of the Pacific. In the US, he says “a crowd of the Ghoulish Undead, nurtured on the politics of the Great Game and the Cold War” is pushing mercantilist politics that are “shortsighted and avaricious.” China, meanwhile, is run by Xi, referred to simply as “the One”:

The One is blind to the Grand Way of current affairs and is scarred indelibly by a political brand from the Cultural Revolution. Overweening pride and official competence leads this One to bend his efforts to serve the wrong ends; talented enough to play the bureaucratic game, and doubtlessly masterful at achieving high office, but as for Guiding the Nation along the Correct Path, [what the One does] is worse than arrant time-wasting for there is something perverse at work.

Xu followed this up with several other articles warning about silence and complicity, as well as an extensive three-part critique of the party since reforms began in 1978. Although all of Xu’s articles were immediately censored, Xu himself initially escaped official criticism—until this year, when in March he was suspended from teaching and placed under investigation.

That led to a series of courageous essays from Chinese public thinkers. One leading voice was Guo Yuhua, a colleague of Professor Xu’s at Tsinghua who has herself been sidelined by the university while her critique of the government has been censored and suppressed. (See the NYR Daily’s 2018 Q&A with her here.) Guo wrote that the university was destroying its reputation by attacking Xu.

Other scholars or prominent voices who joined in include the independent writer Zhang Yihe, the film critic and publisher Geng Xiaonan, the translator and scholar Zi Zhongyun, the law professor Xia Li’an, and the Peking University economics professor Zhang Weiying (who revised a folk ballad to support Xu; it can be heard here). Many others have followed, including some writing sarcastically of the need to get rid of all professors, and some using classical poetry to voice their support. In addition, Chinese and foreign scholars launched a petition to support Xu, which can be viewed, and signed, here.

All the more surprising is that these public statements are happening at an exceptionally delicate time. As always in China, the reason is history. This June 4 will be the thirtieth anniversary of Tiananmen, which will be preceded exactly a month earlier by the hundredth anniversary of the May Fourth Movement, itself a turning point in modern Chinese history when Chinese took to the streets demanding “Mr. Science” and “Mr. Democracy”—in other words, a modern economy and military in tandem with a modern political system. As many commentators are bound to point out in the coming weeks, the country is in the process of obtaining the former while stifling all efforts to create the latter. Finally, this October 1 will be the seventieth anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic. The collision of all these momentous historical precedents means that it takes inordinate courage for critical public intellectuals to speak out now.

The government is, of course, adept at marginalizing such voices. Inside China, accessing these articles by Xu, Guo, and others requires a VPN, software that enables a user to bypass China’s censored intranet and access the global Internet. As a result, Xu and his supporters are unknown to the vast majority of Chinese people.

That makes it hard for public intellectuals to effect change. But they perform another, important function: reflecting the Zeitgeist of an era. Even though Xi is personally popular among many in Chinese society, my impression in traveling widely through different parts of China and observing different strata of society is that people are also conscious of a sense of loss—that the dynamism of the 1990s and 2000s has been turned into something more rigid and stagnant. Even China’s vaunted economic development, which for decades masked all sorts of popular discontent, is slowing, and the government lacks any impetus for reform that would create new motors of growth.

Xu’s case is therefore about far more than another dissident’s being silenced or a few lonely voices speaking out in protest. Instead, it captures a sense that the government has overplayed its hand on many fronts and that opposition is building.

All of this might well be impossible to sustain. But over the past century, even during the darkest times, the underlying humanism of Chinese culture has never been extinguished and has even, at critical moments, reasserted itself. This might seem too romantically hopeful, but it reminds me of a saying from traditional Chinese thought: wu ji bi fanWhen things reach an extreme, they must move in the opposite direction. We can only hope that this pendulum is now at its farthest extent, and that we are witnessing a slow but steady swing in the opposite direction.

Trying to care about Brexit

April 9, 2019

I really have not paid attention to Brexit. It seemed to me as soon as the referendum result came out that one could expend a lot of mental energy to no useful purpose. I don’t watch daytime tv, so I decided not to watch Brexit either.

A few weeks ago, the former prime minister of an African country I am researching asked me what I thought about Brexit. Wanting to shut the conversation down quickly, I said: ‘Well, the population blames the politicians. But a small majority voted for the case put forward by Boris Johnson and Michael Gove. And if you vote for clowns, you get a circus. That is all I can see.’

The former prime minister said he liked this analogy so much he was going to use it in debate in his own parliament. I wished him good luck but said I still wouldn’t pay attention to Brexit until it went right down to the wire.

Well, we should be down to the wire, except that we are about to get another extension so the wire is moving again. There is really no excuse for paying attention, but I did today read a short piece of analysis by investment research firm GaveKal’s Charles Gave that is sufficiently big-picture to not be a complete waste of time. Charles is politically to the right of me, but his analysis is almost always astute:

…………..

And the Brexit Winner Is…

By Charles Gave

 

The root of the current Brexit mess in the UK is simple enough. The UK is a parliamentary democracy. But Conservative Party prime minister David Cameron agreed to hold a popular referendum on whether the country should remain a member of the European Union or leave. Inconveniently, the population did not vote as expected by most of members of parliament, some three-quarters of whom supported remaining in the EU. This left the UK facing a constitutional question which has yet to be resolved: Who is the real sovereign power in the UK? The people or parliament?

In line with time-honored tradition, the answer was fudged. A minority government, itself consisting largely of remain-supporting MPs, set out to negotiate a Brexit deal, knowing full well that no genuine Brexit would ever pass through the remain-supporting House of Commons. In short, the solution was to botch the negotiations in an attempt to convince the general public that getting out of Europe was impossible.

This strategy has worked remarkably well to prevent Brexit from happening—which was, of course, its main goal. But it doesn’t seem to satisfy the average voter, and especially not those who voted for Brexit in the 2016 referendum. These voters have been left with the distinct impression that they have been taken for a ride by the UK’s political class, and in particular by their representatives in parliament. And the constitutional question remains unanswered, with the average voter convinced that he or she is the real sovereign, not the House of Commons. This leaves three possible outcomes.

1) The leader of another European government—Emmanuel Macron? Matteo Salvini? Viktor Orbán?—decides to put the UK out of its misery, vetoes a further extension of the UK’s EU membership and precipitates a hard Brexit. The hard Brexiteers, embodied by Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage, get what they want and declare victory. Theresa May steps down as prime minister, and the next general election is fought along traditional lines between the Conservatives and Labour.

2) In the face of opposition from a sizable number of her own MPs, May succeeds in passing a modified version of her withdrawal agreement through the Commons thanks to Labour support. The Conservative Party splits, and the next election is contested by three main parties rather than two: (i) Labour, (ii) remain-supporting Conservatives aligned with the Liberal Democrats (and with Blairite former-Labour centrists) as the party of the men of Davos, and (iii) the hard-Brexit-supporting rump of the Conservative party, aligned with Farage’s Brexit Party and other discontents. Most likely, the Brexit Party would not put up candidates against Brexiteer Conservative MPs, focusing instead on contests against Remainer Conservatives and Labour MPs with leave-voting constituencies. In a first past the post system, the result of such a contest would be highly unpredictable. But either way, Farage’s party would gain a considerable victory, having destroyed the two-party system.

3) May either secures a lengthy extension or revokes Article 50 altogether, and the UK participates in next month’s European Parliament elections. Farage’s Brexit Party fields a full complement of candidates, capitalizing on popular discontent with the political process to win enough seats effectively to confirm the 2016 referendum result (perhaps not as unlikely as it might sound—Farage’s UK Independence Party won the largest share of the UK vote in the 2014 European Parliament election). Such a clear refutation of the government’s Brexit fudge would leave May with no popular mandate, precipitating a general election, which would leave the UK again facing outcome two.

It may seem strange, but the least dangerous of these outcomes both for the EU (and especially France) and for the UK (and especially the Conservatives) is the first scenario. Macron could assume the mantle of Charles de Gaulle, who twice vetoed UK membership of the European Economic Community, and kick the UK out of the EU for her consistent reluctance to play by European—i.e. French—rules. Such decisive action could bolster his party’s support enough to win the May European Parliament election. If so, Macron would likely dissolve France’s National Assembly in the fall and call new legislative elections to restore the legitimacy he lost to the gilets jaunes protests.

In both the second and third scenarios, the Conservative Party is finished, and will split between the hard Brexiteers and the men of Davos. The days when the likes of Jacob Rees-Mogg and Anna Soubry could both find a political home in the same party are over.

I remain convinced that if the UK is indeed expelled from Europe, it will be as much a catastrophe for the world economy as Y2K. Investors should buy sterling aggressively on any subsequent dip, and continue to sell Germany.

If either the second or third scenario unfolds, investors should not leave sizeable amounts of capital at risk in Europe. There is plenty of money to be made elsewhere. The pound would weaken markedly, since in either scenario there would be an appreciable probability that Jeremy Corbyn could become prime minister. And as Corbyn’s track record amply demonstrates, once in power he is unlikely to prove much of a friend to investors.

 

Good news from Colombia

March 31, 2019

After the World Bank’s Land and Poverty Conference in D.C. last week, I spent a few minutes thinking about the good developmental news coming out of Colombia. The country where Albert Hirschman spent so much research time may finally be getting its act together.

I don’t work on Latin America, but all good news is welcome. If you want one lens into the kind of things that have been going on in Colombia, use this link to visit a fantastic Story Map about the development of property rights and titling for Colombia’s long-suffering indigenous peoples. Even if you just look at the photographs, it is all rather pleasing.


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