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What the Chinese Super League teaches us about China

This article can also be read at Asia Times

Forget the choreographed yawnfest wrapping up in Beijing right now. For any understanding of the Chinese model of development, one might as well behold a Beijing sunset, in all its glorious opacity, as try to make sense of the Communist Party’s smoke signals. Alternatively, one might ponder a prominent undercurrent – a meme, if you like – of Chairman Xi’s Chinese dream: football. As the 2017 Chinese Super League season draws – wheezing, limping, splint-shinned – to a close, here are some takeaways.

#1 In the grander scheme of things, the Chinese still aren’t all that interested in watching Chinese football. While the growing market in China for European football – notably the English Premier League – has put the latter’s marketing warlocks in a froth of activity, average attendances at CSL matches haven’t risen enormously in recent years, despite an ongoing whirlwind of interest from Xi and a regiment of newly-minted Chinese billionaires. In a nation of 1.4 billion, the average CSL game in 2017 drew around 24,000 spectators, which is actually respectable by European standards, but once you strip out a handful of top sides, that figure falls away significantly. An absence of quality on the pitch remains a factor, but so too does the fact that China only got a proper league going in 1994 and has now set itself the task of building a sporting imperium from the top down. The league lacks domestic heroes, folklore, a sense of history and – barring some emerging needle between Shanghai SIPG and Shanghai Shenhua – meaningful rivalries.

#2 The suspicion that there may be something pyramid-shaped about Chinese football has yet to be dispelled. Some of China’s richest men have put very large sums of money in, without the league developing any kind of sustainable revenue streams. Seemingly sold on the promise of jam tomorrow, China Sports Media Ltd (CSM) acquired broadcasting rights to the CSL in 2015, agreeing to pay 8 billion yuan (US$1.18 billion) in instalments over a five-year period. In 2016, the company farmed online broadcasting out to the tech giant LeEco in a two-year deal worth 2.7 billion yuan. Owing to a “cash crunch,” however, LeEco, in turn, sold its 2017 rights to the video streaming site PPTV for 1.35 billion yuan. Then, in July this year, CSM – after withholding its 2017 instalment – announced it is seeking to extend the period of its initial deal from five to 10 years, complaining that new regulations (see #3, below) from the Chinese Football Authority (CFA), a government supervisory body that is the largest shareholder in the CSL, hurt its ability to recoup its investment. Could it be that the projected subscriber base just doesn’t exist?

#3 The current campaign has been, in one respect at least, the proverbial season of two halves. In the winter transfer window, CSL clubs shelled out some jaw-dropping sums to acquire players that have been big names in the global game. Shanghai Shenhua’s capture of Carlos Tevez, regarded a decade or so ago as one of football’s finest strikers, in a deal that reportedly made him the world’s highest-paid player, on an annual salary of $41 million, raised eyebrows among aficionados everywhere. SIPG’s signing of Brazilian midfielder Oscar from English giants Chelsea involved similar levels of cash and suspension of disbelief but at least brought on a player in his prime who could easily be lighting up a higher stage. Others leaving European football for China on tidy contracts included Belgian international Axel Witsel; another former Chelsea man, Nigeria’s John Obi Mikel; and Brazilian forward Alexandre Pato.

The CFA had, in fact, already signaled its dissatisfaction with the influx of money-grabbing foreign talents by reducing the number of overseas players teams can field in a game from four plus a substitute to three. Then, in June, came the coup de main – overseas transfers in the mid-season window would carry a 100% levy. If a club paid less than 45 million yuan ($6.63 million) for a player, the same amount again would have to be put into the club’s own youth system; if more, then a matching sum would have to be rendered unto Caesar, or rather the state’s football development fund.

The whole idea is to nurture more young Chinese players – a laudable aim, but one hedged in by commercial imperatives that create something of a Catch-22. If the league is banking on foreign stars, however superannuated, for box-office appeal, then what happens to the whole enterprise if they’re removed from the picture? It’s unclear if the rule will remain in place for next season or what impact it might have in the long run. But certainly, summer signings were significantly more mid-market, which is probably a good thing, as teams built around a small nucleus of bling-encumbered big-shots famously struggle to find balance. Tevez, incidentally, has been utterly useless, scoring just three goals in a meager 14 appearances to date.

#4 Similarly, it’s no longer enough just to appoint a European or South American manager and expect success on a plate in the CSL. OK, Guangzhou Evergrande have just sealed their seventh straight league title, and their second under former Chelsea and Brazil coach Luiz Felipe Scolari, and SIPG have had a good season under another former Chelsea manager, Andre Villas-Boas – they will finish second in the table and got to the semi-finals of the Asian Champions League. But other foreign coaches have fared less well this term. Beijing Gouan showed Spaniard Jose Gonzalez the door in June, after just six months in the job, and Shenhua – who sit a lowly 12th in the standings – parted company with Gus Poyet (yeah, he used to play for Chelsea) last month. Fabio Capello, hugely successful at the helm of AC Milan back in the 1990s, took over at struggling Jiangsu Suning in June but has only just been able to ensure their top-flight survival.

#5 As one might expect given the mishmash of coaching influences in Chinese football – Italian, German, Portuguese, Brazilian, Korean – and the lack of a tried and trusted formula for the national team, which remains calamitously feeble, there is still no identifiably Chinese style of football. It can be a task getting anywhere near Evergrande’s or SIPG’s Brazilians but games otherwise often seem to have a pronounced physical edge. There is also the occasional dust-up, with the fiercest of them this season coming in an SIPG-Guangzhou R&F clash when a couple of over-enthusiastic interventions from Oscar – for which he was subsequently, and quite unfairly, banned for eight matches – sparked a mass brawl. His team-mates Hulk and Wu Lei were also suspended later for wearing t-shirts supporting Oscar, and Villas-Boas earned his own sanction for an Instagram post that questioned his player’s treatment. The Chinese are all about the rule of law, you understand.

#6 Chinese football displays a glaring lack of transparency in terms of relationships between clubs, their investors, players, fans and the powers-that-be. In July, Jiangsu Suning’s owners – the retailers Suning – were as good as accused of using football to launder money by Chinese state TV. And in the same month, 13 CSL clubs were forced to deny that they were in breach of regulations in relation to unpaid player transfers, salaries or bonuses. Non-resolution, they were told, could see them kicked out of the league next season. Some issued statements denying irregularities; others said they were investigating matters. Then, miraculously, the issue just went away. Who paid what to whom, and when? Cui bono, apart from some young foreign men with tattoos and their agents? Who knows? Perhaps the skies over Beijing hold the answers.

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How to keep calm when all around are shouting ‘fascist’?

This article can also be read at Asia Times

In Niall Ferguson’s new book, The Square and the Tower: Networks, Hierarchies and the Struggle for Global Power, he addresses a dawning recognition that the utopia of free speech and tolerance we were promised the internet would bring about hasn’t quite materialized. “The conflicts of the 16th and 17th centuries,” he argues, “already have unnerving parallels today, in the time of Facebook, Islamic State and Trumpworld.” In other words, the web has put a rocket under our culture wars and existing social divisions, making the public sphere a much more ornery, mistrustful place – one of rancor and bloody-mindedness.

If all one ever did was to read clever books – and ones not yet published, at that – about how the world is going to hell in a handcart, one’s sense of impending doom might simply impend too much. So I haven’t read it. But he’s probably right, isn’t he? The network technology of our age has plugged many of us into spurious, echo-chamber bubble-worlds containing only “people like us.” And some of these spurious worlds reflect pat, off-the-peg ways of understanding the real world that are enormously baneful: radical Islam; a reductive neo-Marxism that rejects everything pertaining to the status quo ante; equally reductive, counter-revolutionary movements that embrace or flirt with blood-and-soil nationalism. For many of those beholden to such explanations of the world, opposing views are an affront. Their battles and revolutions are in the here and now.

What of the rest of us, though? Blithely, resolutely, I neglect to “check my privileges” when I make the following assertion: that most people really don’t give a stuff about ideology. We may feel herded into thinking we ought to, because that is the dynamic on which our politics and news industry – the one hand-on-teat with the other – hinges. But we don’t really. We may feel motivated – in part, if we’re honest, by the narcissism of small differences – to vote one way or another. But deep down we’re not entirely sure what we think on a whole range of issues, even as we have no wish to stop others from saying what they do, earnestly, think. Or think they think. We’re interested in what works in practice, rather than in theory. Many of us even have friends who vote differently to ourselves. What we don’t have is memes on the internet about all of this.

Online, networks have emboldened all manner of outliers to find and raise up their voices. Collectively, their strength is boosted by a news media brought low by the democratizing – and profit-sapping – effects of the same technology. In short, the zealous, the shrill and the contentious are all given disproportionate amounts of oxygen by an industry that is in itself in a state of asphyxiation. The result is a surfeit of noxious politics and ideology in the public sphere.

So much for journalism’s ability to filter out the unimportant or offer a sense of proportion on any of this. Unfortunately, much of what passes for scholarship fails, similarly, to reckon with the silent ambivalence of zoon non-politikon in the age of Twitter fights in which everyone ends up calling everyone else a fascist.

It often seems that barely a month goes by these days without some new study emerging of how liberals and conservatives are possessed of different types of brain. The liberal bias of these studies is often pronounced: conservatives are found to be rigid, uncompromising bastards who hate ambiguity and live in constant fear of dying, whereas liberals are emotionally and intellectually dextrous, co-operative, creative and equable, and emit small beams of sunshine from their hindquarters as they go about their selfless lives. But the tendency to separate human thought into dueling theories, or worldviews, is persistent in intellectual spheres generally. Right or left; individualist or communitarian; authoritarian or libertarian; “anywhere” (culturally fluid and cosmopolitan) or “somewhere”(rooted and socially conservative); Edmund Burke or Thomas Payne; Keynes or Hayek: show me an exam question, and I will show you a binary formulation.

So, then, a protest. Can’t we be both and / or neither? Can’t we trust in markets and in the idea that there is such a thing as the common interest? Can’t we desire government that does useful things on our behalf and steers away from intervening on our freedoms? Can’t we have respect for tradition and believe in progress? Can’t we have a journalism that cuts through the noise and strives towards some idea of universalism instead of pandering to the squalid, zero-sum dynamics of identity politics and competing victimhoods, that does not concern itself with who has taken offense but is not afraid to give it to those who poison the well?

Thomas Hobbes was not a great believer in the idea of a natural moral order in the world. Humankind, as he saw it, would be liable to regress to a state of viciousness and avarice without the steadying hand of a coercive state. It’s a bleak view, but one which it seems to me today’s left and right attribute each to the other, in their different ways: the left caricatures the right’s view of human nature as a deification of selfishness; the right mocks the left’s statist impulses, in which it discerns a fundamental lack of trust in ordinary people to make their own decisions. Such levels of mutual mistrust, then, that each caucus believes the other lacks faith in humanity entirely.

It does feel, now, like the tendency to believe the worst of others on account of views they hold, or express, is widespread. If Hobbes saw the world as a nasty, cut-throat place, then – as Niall Ferguson may be understood to intimate – growing numbers seem bent on proving him right.


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Let’s call the whole thing off: India, China row back from war

This article can also be read at Asia Times

After more than two months of brinksmanship, it appears the circus has packed its bags as the summer-long Himalayan impasse between China and India looks to be officially over. With the aggressors having been unable to agree on a narrative about its onset, the manner of its dialling down looks to be similarly unclear, but – for now, at least – there is an “understanding.”

India said on Monday that an agreement had been reached with China, following talks, and that both sides were pulling back their border forces from the Doklam plateau, an area that is claimed by both China and Bhutan, long a strategic partner of its neighbor to the south.

“Following diplomatic communications,” read a statement from New Delhi yesterday, “expeditious disengagement of border personnel of China and India at the face-off site” was ongoing.

The stand-off began on June 16 when Chinese soldiers, convinced they were on Chinese territory, found their attempts to extend a road at Doklam, near the tri-junction between India, Bhutan and China, thwarted by Indian soldiers. As both camps dug in their heels, the ensuing diplomatic crisis came to be portrayed as the worst in decades between the nuclear-armed neighbors.

For its part, the Chinese Foreign Ministry announced yesterday only that China was “pleased” India had “withdrawn,” adding that it would “continue to exercise its sovereign rights” over the plateau. Indian government officials whispered anonymously that China had backed off too, taking its road-building apparatus with it, although none of this has actually been confirmed.

China had repeatedly said India must withdraw its troops before any negotiations could take place, while India had insisted both sides should withdraw their forces together. In the event, it appears likely that some compromise was struck, possibly relating to some peripheral matter such as China’s growing relationship with Pakistan. Either way, it is significant that de-escalation has been achieved without loss of face for either party.

Throughout the crisis, India’s notoriously bellicose media appeared to exhibit a remarkably composed streak in the face of provocative rhetoric from China’s state-owned sentinels – albeit under almost certain pressure from Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s slick media managers. That being so, it has not been slow, with the troops now gone from Doklam, to condemn China’s conduct in attempting to “bully” other countries.

Accusing China of “bare-knuckled policies” and “historic revisionism”, an editorial in the Times of India by columnnist Rajeev Deshpande suggests New Delhi’s “resolve” offers a lesson to other countries in how to resist Chinese aggression. He writes: “The Doklam saga will encourage countries like Vietnam, Mongolia, Singapore and Japan that have been pushing back at China, and cause others like Philippines, who looked as if they might cave in, to reconsider.”

Meanwhile, Dhruva Jaishankar, a foreign policy fellow with Brookings India, told AFP that India had achieved its objective by forcing China to step back from its contentious road project. “The Chinese side is going to focus on the fact that the Indian troops have withdrawn,” he said. “(But) ultimately the issue is whether this road gets built or not, and it appears that it won’t be the case.”

What’s certainly clear is that India has no appetite for being pushed around by its increasingly hegemonic neighbor. Given China’s ambitions forth of its borders – not least in terms of building connectivity and strategic alliances in areas of land and sea that India is accustomed to viewing as its own sphere of influence – future flashpoints seem inevitable. But whether the stand-off at Doklam comes to be viewed as a phony prelude to some more heated conflict or a footnote in a coming trajectory of greater bilateral co-operation, the fact that no shots were fired in this little summer contretemps suggest both sides have at least weighed the risks attached.


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Laying low in Ho Chi Minh City’s red light district

This article can also be read at Asia Times

I’ve stopped by one of the roadside bars on Bui Vien Street, where Steve, a proud Western Australian, is telling me what makes the girls in this part of Saigon so special. His mate has just nicked his scooter and driven off home on it, leaving Steve bereft of company. The girls, though. See, the thing is, they do everything, he says. Everything: they even kiss you.

Steve is feeling a bit emotional, as it happens. He has had to leave his girlfriend – on account of his wife, who is back home in Perth, not liking her. They would have split anyway, he confides, ruefully casting his cigarette end in the direction of a passing tide of bedraggled American youths. She was getting on a bit and he refused to give her what she wanted: a child.

Steve looks about 68, at a conservative estimate. It is with boyish delight, however, that he shows me the Zippo lighter gifted him by a stranger earlier in the day. “Exceptionally rare,” he remarks, allowing me to feel its weight. “Made in 1958.” I nudge the cap off, thumb the wheel and a flame licks the air between us. Steve looks positively touched. I drink my beer.

I hadn’t planned on hanging my hat in Ho Chi Minh City’s District 1, which my belated inquiries (Google search) reveal to be “notorious.” Motivated vaguely by nostalgia (for what, I’m not quite sure; when I was of backpacking age I stayed home like most people with no money), I’d simply wanted to slum it a bit after staying in a posh place in Hoi An at someone else’s expense the night before. Easier said than done.

I thought I knew what I was looking for on hotels.com – no rat-holes, nothing dirt-cheap, just somewhere spartan but characterful, with a touch of woodiness and that air of respectability that used to attach itself to all guesthouses in the lower arrondissements of Paris (an air that almost certainly concealed some far less decorous unknown). It seems you have to really lower the price bar for that kind of thing in modern-day Saigon, though: luxury accommodation starts at about US$40 a night. Spend a fraction more and you’re into Kubla Khan territory.

The room I have settled for, at US$15, is immaculate. Everything in it is brand new and of the sternest good quality. Cavernous ensuite bathroom included, it is about the size of my apartment in Hong Kong.

At check-in, I’d chatted to the owners’ daughter, an elfish, handsome girl of about 21. What sort of things would I be doing while in Ho Chi Minh City, she had asked me. As I was flying out the following evening and hadn’t done any research I supposed I would probably just wander around, I’d said, adding – a propos of her dubious silence – that my editor had instructed me to go and look at the War Remnants Museum.

Showing me how to get there on the map, she’d explained that the museum is a bit boring and that people of her generation never talk amongst themselves about the war, nor indeed of its remnants. Do older people never get upset about this lack of interest? Oh no, she’d insisted: they’re just delighted that Vietnam has so many young people – post-war baby-boomers – to do everything for them.

Where I come from, in Britain, I’d said, it’s the opposite; in fact, there are so many old British people that, to keep ourselves amused, we give them unlimited free bus travel then place bets on how many days it will take them to get home. Her look of reproach seemed laden with the suggestion that one must be more respectful of one’s elders, whatever their provenance.


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#HangAyazNizami is what comes of caving in to clerical rule

This article can also be read at Asia Times

What do you suppose is the correct response to angry religious people seeking to avenge injury visited on them by words (and sometimes cartoons)?

The Christian faith has its injunction to non-violence: “Unto him that smiteth thee on the one cheek offer also the other; and him that taketh away thy cloke forbid not to take thy coat also.” Jesus’ advice is variously interpreted as a call for meek submission or provocative defiance – which means that, like a great deal of what is found in religious texts, it can be used to support any number of courses of action, or non-action. There’s also the old “eye for an eye” passage, of course.

For its part, the secular West has tended to react to violence occasioned by members of its Muslim minority populations with a distinctly accommodating passivity. No, we will not re-publish drawings that are deemed offensive, even if by doing so we enlighten our readers. Yes, we will tread very carefully in what we say with regard to Islam and its prophet. And yes, we will continue to agree that it is “the religion of peace.” The brandishing of cheeks seems an altogether reckless business.

Last week, Canada passed a motion to criminalize Islamophobia. Critics say it reframes blasphemy as hate speech and enshrines the kind of clerical oversight of public discourse that prevails in the 57 member states of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation – a pact that has long campaigned against the “defamation of religion” in non-Muslim countries. (Several of those states, incidentally, uphold a mandatory death sentence for blasphemers and apostates.)

What, though, if an erosion of the commitment to free speech in the West actually made life worse for Muslim, or erstwhile Muslim, critics of Islam? That’s certainly the view taken by the activist and commentator Maryam Namazie, who – as an Iranian-born secularist – belongs to a minority within a minority in her adopted UK. In her newsletter for the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain this week, she wrote that: “The normalization of de jure or de facto blasphemy laws and accusations of Islamophobia when religion is criticized have created a climate where Islamic states feel free to persecute freethinkers with impunity … It’s crucial that we defend blasphemers and apostates unequivocally and ensure that freedom of conscience and expression are upheld for all – believers and nonbelievers alike.”

She was, in fact, referring to the case of Ayaz Nizami, a Pakistani scholar of Islam and blogger who happens to have renounced religion and is now suffering for it: on March 24 he was arrested and charged with blasphemy. In a country that is a signatory to all manner of bons mots about human rights and freedom of conscience, but where some 30,000 gathered last year to mourn the murderer of a governor who had called for the pardoning of a Christian woman sentenced to death for allegedly insulting the Prophet Muhammad, he also now faces the death penalty.

Nizami’s plight has, ironically enough, been brought to global attention partly on account of a trending Twitter hashtag (#HangAyazNizami) about him. Ironic why? Because the Pakistani government earlier in March requested that Twitter and Facebook assist it in identifying and weeding out those suspected of blasphemy online. Twitter’s rules, meanwhile, state that users “may not promote violence against or directly attack or threaten other people on the basis of race, ethnicity, national origin, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, religious affiliation, age, disability, or disease. We also do not allow accounts whose primary purpose is inciting harm toward others …” Accounts have, in the past, been suspended over remarks considered Islamophobic; as yet, however, no Pakistanis have been banned for tweeting their encouragement to Nizami’s jailers.

The Pakistani government’s entreaties to American social media companies are just one strand of its recent assault on atheism. Since the turn of the year, it has arrested or abducted, and tortured, multiple writers and activists and called for citizens to become informants on the “enemies of Islam.”

It has curtailed freedom of speech and expression offline and on, and – at a time when the country’s elites are worried about Pakistan’s image abroad and reputation as a sponsor of jihad – it has worked itself into a froth against “liberal secular extremism,” branding atheists as terrorists.

In most functioning countries, the right to religion generally comes, as Namazie puts it, with “a corresponding right to be free from religion.” When confronted by it, one is free to turn the other cheek, or worse. Perhaps it’s time we showed those trying to win that freedom in the Muslim world a little more respect. Without more of them, there’s going to be a lot more avenging of injury.