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Her Majesty was probably just trying to be polite

This column can also be read at SCMP.COM

If you didn’t know better, you might have been excused last week for thinking The Global Times had suddenly unearthed a sense of humour.

In a piece only published in its Chinese-language edition, the sister paper of The People’s Daily lambasted the “barbarians” in the British media responsible for reporting on Queen Elizabeth being captured on video describing Chinese officials as “very rude”. “As they experience constant exposure to the 5,000 years of continuous Eastern civilisation, we believe they will make progress” when it comes to manners, the paper declared, adding a description of British journalists as “’gossip fiends’… who bare fangs, brandish claws and are very narcissistic.”

It is quite probable that some British journalists merit this characterisation. Some may even feel flattered by it. In their narcissism, moreover, they may not have considered how fortunate they are not to be bundled off at airports for crossing their political masters, as happens in China. Whatever their feelings, though, one must resist the urge to discern satire in the pages of a Communist Party mouthpiece. Indeed, the view expressed by The Global Times rather confirms something we all knew anyway and which the British monarch has exposed afresh: that the Chinese state takes itself rather more seriously than is good for it.

Let’s just recap how an off-the-cuff remark blew up into what the world’s news channels were on hand to label an “explosive” diplomatic wedge. At a garden party at Buckingham Palace last Tuesday, Her Majesty was introduced to the police commander who had been responsible for overseeing security arrangements ahead of Xi Jinping’s state visit to Britain last October. As this police commander related how a Chinese delegation had walked out of a meeting with the British ambassador to Beijing, Barbara Woodward, the Queen said: “They were very rude to the ambassador.”

Pressed into welcoming Xi with the full pomp and pageantry of the British state by a government desperate to grease up to the world’s rising superpower, the Queen would have been well aware that his emissaries had been, well, somewhat demanding. It has been reported that they wanted Chinese security officials to be allowed to carry guns and for anti-Chinese protests to be banned. Both requests were denied; however, during the visit a bodyguard tried to insert himself alongside Xi and the Queen in her royal carriage. Sources have revealed, too, that the Palace had to insist that none of the delegation use laptops or tablets during the state banquet in Xi’s honour. The President’s support staff had their own food flown over from Beijing. Moreover, on a previous visit to Britain, in 2014, premier Li Keqiang’s minders complained that the red carpet rolled out for him at Heathrow Airport was not long enough.

In short, if the Queen felt that Chinese officials had at various turns been “very rude”, she almost certainly had good reason for it. Unfortunately for her on this occasion, her own officials let her down by allowing a private conversation to be first filmed then released to media outlets. It has been suggested that she might have been more guarded, but for goodness’ sake, the woman is 90 years old and has spent her entire adult life being guarded. Not for nothing is she parodied for being anodyne in conversation.

One can only speculate as to what Xi Jinping might have had to say in private about his visit to Britain. Perhaps he thought the beer he shared with Prime Minister David Cameron revolting; perhaps he found it amusing that the English Football Association inducted a Chinese player, Sun Jihai, into its Hall of “Fame” when very few people in England know who he is; perhaps he misinterpreted protestors’ two-fingered salutes as gestures of friendship. In any event, some poor hack would be made to pay the price if it ever got out.

As for the Queen, in this day and age she has no choice but to tolerate members of her own fourth estate dragging up their country’s imperial past, and the opium wars, and calling her a hypocrite. In reality, when it comes down to it, she probably just thought it polite to agree with a policewoman.

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Tokyo’s Olympic organisers are smarter than the PR hustlers think

This article can also be read at SCMP.COM

You have probably noticed that there is something of a backlash underway against the free movement of money. In America and Europe, even people who were for it have looked at how the wind’s blowing and are suddenly against it. Borders and barriers and sounding like you’ve read a Noam Chomsky book are in vogue. Free trade is being spoken of in tones usually reserved by conspiracy theorists for the Jesuits or the Bilderberg Group.

Some aspects of globalisation are likely invulnerable, though. However far the nations of the world opt to go in protecting their own industries against foreign encroachment, or in turning the screws on capital flows, the universal triumph of branding seems a fait accompli.

Branding has gone viral – in the way that pathogens are viral. It is both a pollutant and a parasite. Every organisation under the sun has been hoodwinked into adopting a “vision”, and a “mission”, and “values”. It is all so much tumescent mumbo jumbo, but the hubris of the so-called creative industries has conquered the globe.

That is why when the PR and marketing monkeys mess up, it becomes news. On the face of it, this is what has happened with the Tokyo Olympic Games over the last year. First the British architect Zaha Hadid’s winning design for a new stadium for 2020 was thrown over due to exorbitant costs and another bid hastily selected. Then along came a plagiarism controversy over the logo. I am not so sure, though: I think perhaps the Japanese organisers are smarter than all the PR hustlers competing for their largesse give them credit for.

The original winning proposal for the Games emblem, by Kenjiro Sano, was withdrawn late last year. A theatre in the Belgian city of Liege had said it must have been copied from their own logotype and threatened to sue. Sano’s design, an assortment of shapes arranged to form a “T”, certainly looked like something you had seen before. Quite possibly a “T”. At any rate, it hardly rivalled Caravaggio in its originality.

A few days ago, a new design shortlist was revealed. The selection process had been opened to the public and the 15,000 entries received have been whittled down to four. Stressing their “outstanding” qualities, Ryohei Miyata, head of the Tokyo 2020 emblem committee, told journalists: “I’m proud to say that these are the best works at this point.”

I have long believed having a sense of humour to be among the most vital qualities in a public functionary. Mr Miyata is therefore to be congratulated. Unkind appraisals of previous Olympic logos have likened them to drawings done by slightly backwards children. At least two of the four presented for public consultation by Miyata et al fall into this category, which may or may not be explicable by the fact that over a thousand Japanese schoolchildren entered.

In any event, the important thing is that throwing the contest open has irked the creative wallahs. The American Institute of Graphic Arts says the design profession has been “disrespected”. I don’t know; maybe they’re miffed about the money. The emblem for the London Olympics, which looked like some pieces of broken glass, cost the British public £400,000 (HK$4.5 million). The winning design in Japan will be awarded ¥1 million (HK$70,000) and a ticket to the opening ceremonies of both the Olympic and Paralympic Games. Same result, fraction of the cost.

The joke gets even better, though, when you consider the stress put on the committee’s rigorous “international trademark verification procedures” to ensure that the designs were all original this time. According to a statement on the subject, applicants were referred to the Tokyo 2020 Games Vision and “key concepts” for inspiration.

Alas, there is nothing original whatsoever contained in these sources of inspiration. They tell us that the Games are “innovative”. There is some drivel about diversity (“Accepting one another”) and some equally nebulous stuff about legacy. And there is a derisory nod to actual sport: “Striving for your personal best”. One could be reading about Kentucky Fried Chicken, or the Agricultural, Fisheries and Conservation Department of the Hong Kong government, or hell, who knows, the Bilderberg Group.

It’s conceivable that I’m wrong about this but what I’d like to believe the Japanese are saying here is that all corporate emblems are rubbish, modern corporate branding is stupid and we hope you enjoy the Games, lol. As with the stadium, they’re just not up for being rinsed financially. Fair play to them.

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Are we training students for a world where robots work for free?

This post can also be read at SCMP.COM

According to research, levels of happiness among Hong Kong schoolchildren have plummeted to new lows. Homework and extra lessons are eating into students’ time for sleep and exercise and are held to be their chief source of distress. The findings follow a spate of recent suicides that have made the mental well-being of young people an especially vexed issue. It is all very alarming – but don’t expect to see attitudes changing any time soon. The educational stakes are just too high.

In a competitive society, the imperative not to set one’s children at any disadvantage is an understandable one. A minimalist definition of aspiration might be the desire for your loved ones not to have to end up working until they drop.

What if technological change were happening so quickly that even the specialised skills we’ve convinced ourselves will power economic growth in the coming decades become irrelevant in the space of only a few years? These things are starting to happen, and with profound implications for jobs and education.

What, though, if everything we thought we knew about getting ahead, acquiring knowledge and expertise and securing an attractive career was being shaken up? What if technological change were happening so quickly that even the specialised skills we’ve convinced ourselves will power economic growth in the coming decades become irrelevant in the space of only a few years? These things are starting to happen, and with profound implications for jobs and education.

At some point in the present decade, we entered an age of drones, 3D printing, robots and artificial intelligence. Such marvels, it is a fair bet, will eliminate millions of low-skilled and unskilled jobs involving everyday tasks from cleaning and washing up to driving vans, sorting mail and serving food. In the United States alone, the predicted wave will make the offshoring of the country’s manufacturing in recent years look like small beer. Skilled jobs will be at risk, too, though.

Erik Brynjolfsson, co-author of The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies, said recently on BBC radio: “In the industrial age we automated a lot of physical work, the work of our muscles. In the new machine age, we’re doing the same things for mental work. This is having as big an impact on humanity as the industrial revolution did.” Machines could end up doing the jobs of surgeons, teachers, firefighters, entertainers – even, one imagines, bankers.

Beyond that, Bill Gates, Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk have all warned about an existential threat arising when super-intelligent computers become capable of designing and building machines smarter than themselves – a moment that is being referred to as “the singularity” and which experts believe will arrive in about 40 years. If this forecast becomes reality, what use the study of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) subjects then to mere mortals? Why bother learning about the nature of an exponential function, or how to write source code? (Note: these questions will be even more redundant if the machines opt to murder us all in our beds, Terminator-style.)

A more medium-term outlook is that many of us will be looking for new forms of employment. We might also be forced to reconsider what will benefit our children to learn. For Brynjolfsson, that means focusing on things that humans do well and machines don’t, or don’t yet: “creative” things like coaching football teams, or writing novels, or conceiving of new products and services.

The problem with the last of these, I hear you object (you’re objecting to the first two as well, on account of there being a finite number of football teams and already enough crap novels? Fair enough) is that if machines are doing everything workers used to, then there will be no workers / consumers left to buy the things smarty-pants entrepreneurial people are producing. This is to presume that without proper work we’d most of us be poor, though. In fact, in a world where machines make and do everything, the cost of buying stuff should also nosedive, meaning that we can survive on very little, helped along by governments paying some kind of “living wage”.

That’s the rosy, utopian version of a workless future enabled by A.I. in which we all become part of one big leisure class, at liberty to create or to volunteer, or simply to exist. No doubt people in every century in history have felt like they were at the end of something that went before, but the notion of the end of work feels a bit more significant than the end of, say, witch-burning, or rock ‘n’ roll, or communism, or even religion. Freed to be artists and idlers, perhaps we’d have more time to think about human values, and about how they might survive the singularity. Perhaps we’d gain self-worth entirely from sources other than our careers. Either way, you would hope we’d be less inclined to overload the young with tests and homework.

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What’s really driving China’s ambition to buy up Hollywood and win the World Cup?

This post can also be read at SCMP.COM

The globalisation of the film industry is going to mean that “you can’t tell whether it’s a Chinese film or a Hollywood film any more.” That was according to Warner Bros’ CEO and Chairman Kevin Tsujihara last week as he heralded Sino-American co-productions now in the pipeline at Flagship Entertainment, a joint venture involving WB, Hong Kong broadcaster TVB and China Media Capital, the Chinese state-backed investment firm.

Perhaps you are a film fan. If so, how does this make you feel? Do you want to watch films that scramble all evidence of who made them and why – films with nothing to offer in the way of cultural specificity? You don’t? Well, that’s simply inconvenient. Chinese tycoons, in league with enthusiastic American partners, have their sights on establishing new global entertainment empires capable of capturing box office gravy in both East and West alike, and they want your money.

There’s nothing new about people in the entertainment business trying to maximise profits, you might protest, and you’d be right. What’s grating, I think, is the subtle suggestion that this coming together of cash, talent and storytelling – One Script, One Road, if you like – is just one big exercise in global cuddliness.

There have been other deals. Perfect World Pictures last month announced a co-financing partnership with Universal Pictures. Hunan TV is sinking US$1.5 billion into Lionsgate. Huayi Brothers and Fosun International are also investing heavily in American movie ventures. Moreover, the purchase in January of Legendary Pictures (Godzilla, Jurassic World) by the world’s biggest cinema chain operator (and China’s biggest private property developer), Wanda Group, for US$3.5 billion, has been branded “China’s largest-ever cultural takeover.”

U.S. anti-trust laws – look up the Paramount Decrees – are supposed to prohibit ownership of both movies and theatres. Wanda already owned AMC Entertainment, America’s second-biggest theatre chain. Why has nothing been made of this? Cynics might say it’s because the Yanks really, really want direct access to China’s booming box office, which is forecast to outstrip their own in the next couple of years. In that mission, however, they are also likely to find themselves dancing to the tune of the Chinese State Administration of Radio, Film and Television (SARFT), a body whose latest set of rules, targeted at TV producers, amounts to a laundry list of prohibitions, including bans on content that is “to the detriment of national image [or] endangers national unity and social stability”, “exaggerates social problems, displays excess, or shows the dark side of society”, “sets a negative character as a main character”, or “breaks with national sentiment”.

It is inconceivable that the propaganda risks and opportunities associated with inviting Hollywood into the Chinese multiplex have not been weighed by Beijing. Equally unlikely is that Xi Jinping himself has not had a hand in urging Hollywood-bound cash outflows. Establishing a modern consumer society in China that bears at least some of the hallmarks of America’s is a recurring theme of his leadership. One need only consider cinema’s counterpart on Xi’s two-pronged fork of consumerist expansionism to forget the notion that this is entirely about “rebalancing” the economy, however.

That other prong is sport – or, more specifically, football (the proper variety, not the American version). Led by Li Ruigang, a man dubbed “China’s Rupert Murdoch”, in November the very same China Media Capital paid 8 billion yuan (HK$9.5 billion) for the broadcast rights to the Chinese Super League for the next five years. For their part, meanwhile, Wanda last year not only took a 20 per cent stake in the Spanish football club Atletico Madrid but paid US$1.2 billion for the Swiss-based sports marketing company Infront Sports & Media, a company that holds the exclusive sales rights to broadcast Fifa events from 2015 to 2022, including the 2018 and 2022 World Cups.

Until very recently, global interest in the CSL was trace to non-existent. As reported diligently by the Post’s own James Porteous, it has increased somewhat in 2016 as Chinese clubs have taken to offering players double what they’re earning in Europe in a frenzied spree of spending fuelled by that injection of cash from CMC – who are evidently betting on a huge increase in demand for domestic football content and increased interest in the game generally.

To that end, China plans to have 20,000 designated football schools by 2017, raising participation to unprecedented levels. Professing himself a fan of the game, Xi has also made it known he wants China to host a World Cup and ultimately to win one. To be clear, then, the objective is to become a global power in the world’s most popular sport.

In his book Civilisation: The West and the Rest, Niall Ferguson wrote about China trying to replicate the West’s historical va va voom in pursuit of prosperity, or “downloading its best apps”: competition, science, the rule of law, modern medicine, the Protestant work ethic and consumerism. The evidence suggests China has a few problems with its version of the third-mentioned, but in terms of consumerism, well, blockbuster movies and football as drivers of economic growth would seem like straightforward rips.

Only nothing’s as straightforward as Xi might wish. Just as Western moviegoers are likely to vote with their feet and stay away from the kind of films that adhere to SARFT’s worldview, Chinese football isn’t about to become exportable any time soon, and it’s far from certain that the subscription base needed to make the numbers add up domestically will materialise.

Matthew Syed argued in The Times (of London) the other week that Xi’s backing for football is about political indoctrination and control, that it is characterised by “top-down planning and the use of vast (unaccounted for) resources”, and that the paramount leader has rallied tycoons behind his cause in return for political favour.” “The attempt to rise up the rankings, and to stage the World Cup,” he wrote, “is testimony to the growing paranoia of China’s elite. Repression has escalated under Xi as the economy has slowed and propaganda is set to do precisely the same. In that sense, football is a mere pawn in a game of much higher stakes.”

It is certainly true that China’s leadership is facing multiple headwinds: slowing economic growth, shrinking employment, crashing markets, a growing suspicion that serious financial, economic and social problems are being papered over. And indeed, building up the nation’s leisure-industrial complex might be viewed, by the Marxist and the capitalist alike, as a useful expedient via which citizens / consumers can keep themselves (and not the streets) occupied. The official narrative is that buying Hollywood in order to censor it and demanding domination of a sport at which you are currently useless speaks of cultural confidence. It could just as easily be read as stemming from profound insecurity.

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The best obtainable snapshot of impending doom in Hong Kong

This blog post can also be read at SCMP.COM

It is a rare thing these days to find oneself at liberty to read an entire day’s newspaper in a sitting. “Distracted from distraction by distraction … in this twittering world” writes T.S Eliot in Burnt Norton, and he is not wrong. Alright, I skipped 11 other lines with that “…”. Plus: they hadn’t even got television news yet in his day, never mind Twitter. Nor did he have children. But still, he was a man ahead of his time, old T.S.

Printing newspapers will be done away with some day soon, you know. Either that or they’ll become a niche curiosity, like cars with steering wheels, or ivory cufflinks. Or cufflinks of any sort, for that matter. Either way, it’ll be your fault, blog reader – you, with your low attention span and gadabout reading habits, your social media and your windows and your apps. Newspapers are dying because you’ve stopped buying them. You’ve decided to spend the money on other stuff: hot milk blasted with coffee, Netflix, gifts for other people’s already-spoilt children. Frankly it’s a nonsense and you should have a talk with yourself. Just think of the money you’re saving by not smoking all day like everyone did not that long ago. And don’t imagine you’re excused by saying you never used to read the thing anyway. In the old days plenty of people bought a daily newspaper simply in order to leave it unopened on a telephone stand. They threw it in the bin the next day, or hid it under a carpet to be rediscovered years hence, or used it to wrap their grandmother against the cold in winter. And they did so because to buy a newspaper was the right thing to do.

In truth I am out of the habit of stockpiling newspapers under carpets and as guilty as anyone of not reading the ones I remember to buy. But, every so often, mindful of that thing Carl Bernstein said about good newspapers serving up the best obtainable version of the truth each day, I do make an appointment to sit down and read all of the South China Morning Post. It’s still the most therapeutic way, I find, of fathoming what’s what in Hong Kong. Instead of venturing online in search only of that which interests me then falling prey to all manner of bait-mongers, I’m effectively saying: gimme what you’ve got, warts, biases and all.

The snarl I’m coming to is this, though – the snapshot of the truth I gained from scouring the pages of the SCMP the other day was anything but therapeutic. It was, on the contrary, a vision of impending doom, catastrophe, unease, horror, pain, decline, dissolution, war and possibly apocalypse. Such, in fact, was my distress that I failed to take solace from the likelihood that non-newspaper readers are every bit as vulnerable to this tide of ruin as newspaper readers. And in that magnanimous vein, I think I perform a service by relating it.

In the news pages I learned the following: that there is a Cold War-style stand-off at the DMZ; that China is suspected of building a radar system in the Spratlys that may hasten World War III; that intimidation of journalists is being redoubled with a new threat of graft proceedings against state media workers; that the Communist Party’s revolutionary princelings are hunkering down for a “protracted war”. In the introduction to an Insight column, I discover: “One of the most talked-about topics these days is undoubtedly China”. It is an effort to read on.

In Hong Kong there is an alarming rise in HIV cases. There is rape, robbery and assault. Meanwhile, it is suggested financial secretary John Tsang’s budget handouts are having a “placebo effect” on a soon-to-be flatlining economy. Standard Chartered has reported annual losses and its top directors won’t be getting a bonus for 2015. Surely a public fund will be raised, you ask, not unreasonably. In America, a man has been fired from the staff of one presidential hopeful for alleging that another presidential hopeful said the bible did not contain all the answers to everything. (Relax, he said the opposite.)

I read some more about the fallout from the violence in Mong Kok the other week. Richard Wong writes that Hong Kong’s “growing socioeconomic divide… has deepened anxiety, insecurity and conflict in day-to-day life.” Expect more social unrest. In the Property Section, it’s all about property prices “sinking”. I briefly wonder if this is a good thing, at least for all the people who currently can’t afford to buy, but there is no mention of this. Instead, there is cause to worry that spending is down at Chow Tai Fook. It is “depressed”, you see. Draw up one of those keyword cloud things and you will have a picture of the toxic verbal traffic in my head: “economic woes”, “market volatility”, “bleak outlook”, “deeply divided,” “Senator Ted Cruz”.

Finally, there is some light relief as I turn to the sports pages. One of global football’s most dedicated mercenaries, Sven Goran Eriksson – now manager at Shanghai SIPG – says that China will win the World Cup “in a decade”. If you’re laying a carpet, make sure that one goes down nice and flat.

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Five of the best: tales of (non-Chinese) censorship

This blog post can also be read at SCMP.COM

It is probable that if there was advantage to be had from the sun rising in the evening, the Chinese government would have it so. State media would be full of reports of supper-time breakfasting in Jiangxi province and 1am assemblies of elderly citizens in Shanghai parks.

In the field of economics, presently, China is learning that so long as it permits money to flow freely in and out of the country it cannot sit on interest rates and also expect the yuan’s exchange rate value to hold up. But still it pretends all things are possible; to admit otherwise would be to accept some degree of impotence. 

The point, I think, is that China likes control. And nowhere is this more obvious in what it suffers to be said or written about itself. Chinese authorities prohibit the spread of information and accurate reporting about disasters and their own efforts to cope with them; the country’s history under Communism is only sketchily taught in schools; internet users are required to register themselves, the better to “protect their own privacy”; and journalists are never done being locked up. Meanwhile, the Chinese State Administration of Radio, Film and Television (SARFT) not only acts as a censor for domestic media but increasingly for Hollywood too. 

As its transgressors in modern China will attest, censorship is no laughing matter. And yet, and yet: occasionally the whole business just becomes so utterly preposterous and cretinous that it cannot help but add incidentally to the gaiety – in the old sense – of nations to recount it. 

In its wisdom the state broadcaster, China Central Television, earlier this month decided to pixelate the face of Hong Kong actor Wong Hei during a popular Sunday evening broadcast. Wong’s crime was having shared a link on social media to a news report about a book suggesting Zhou Enlai, premier of the People’s Republic from 1949 until 1976, was gay. The risk to viewers of beholding his chiseled visage was, you will appreciate, marked.

Donkey-brained, or simply bizarre, acts of censorship are by no means exclusive to China, of course. Here, then, some more of my own favourite recent examples of half-witted censorship from around the world: 

1. Besides incinerating vast piles of European cheese, in retaliation against Western sanctions imposed over their misdemeanours in Ukraine, the Russians have been been busy banning books. In Yekaterinburg, perhaps eager to take the lead and impress the bosses in Moscow, officials instructed their city’s libraries in August to “prevent access” to anything written by Antony Beevor or the late John Keegan, two British historians whose work is “imbued with the propagandistic stereotypes of Nazism”, chronicling as it does raping and looting by Red Army soldiers across Eastern Europe during their epic defeat of the Wehrmacht. The British eggheads’ source material? Russia’s own archives. Meanwhile, a tit-for-tat “information war” between Russia and Ukraine has prompted all manner of proscriptions on both sides. For its part, Ukraine has blacklisted Russia’s adopted son, the French tax exile Gerard Depardieu, labeling him a threat to national security. 

2. In December, a school in Philadelphia removed Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn from the curriculum owing to its use of a word used commonly in the 1880s: “nigger”. First banned in 1885, in Massachusetts, for being “trash and suitable only for the slums”, the novel was not deemed sufficiently “inclusive” by the school’s principal, Art Hall, who said: “I do not believe that we’re censoring. I really do believe that this is an opportunity for the school to step forward and listen to the students.” One supposes it would be too much to ask  teachers in this day and age to educate students as to the meaning of context or introduce them to anything intellectually discomforting. Better to let them set the parameters of literary criticism themselves. Meanwhile, also in America, the University of Wisconsin’s Inclusive Excellence Center last year added the phrase “politically correct” to its list of censored terms. PC, it said, had become a “dismissive” label used to imply people were attempting to “police language”. Presumably the word “irony” got the same treatment a while back. 

3. According to a producer of Iranian TV commercials quoted a couple of years ago on Iranwire, a blog run by “diaspora” journalists, Iran’s shadowy committee of government censors once embargoed footage, intended to promote a tomato paste, of a chicken in a pot. The bird’s thighs were deemed to be “sexually arousing”. The producer added: “There was a time when women could not appear in commercials, back in the 1990s. If you take a look at the commercials made at that time you would see two men appearing in soap or shampoo commercials. You would think that the commercials were pitched entirely to a gay audience, or for a gay television network, because virtually every ad involved a male couple smiling or sharing some aspect of household life.”

4. In Britain, where the National Health Service does not used the word “obese” in its National Child Measurement Programme for fear of “stigmatizing the child”, but where children are fatter than ever due to lack of physical activity, it often seems the nation’s energies are mostly spent on being offended and gagging people. Germaine Greer, the Australian-born writer whose shoulder has been to the wheel of feminist liberation for almost half a century suddenly finds herself the target of feminist students concerned to “no platform” her. From having been a paragon of radical chic, her views on gender reassignment – she says the urge comes from a form of “body dysmorphia” – now put her in the bad corner with Genghis Khan, Josef Mengele, Bill Cosby et al. “A disgrace to feminism and society”, her sin is to believe that those of us given penises are men. 

5. For all the organisation’s murderous depravity, in reading its edicts one is just as often struck by the philistinism of ISIS. There’s almost, at times, a Spode-ish quality about them (see Spode, Roderick, the British fascist leader in the Jeeves novels). Pigeon-breeding, for instance, is forbidden, because “the sight of the birds’ genitals as they fly overhead is offensive to Islam.” Other things which were outlawed in ISIS-controlled areas in 2015 included: songs and music; the study of maths, evolution, chemistry, music, history, the arts, psychology, philosophy and social studies; participation in sports; women showing any of themselves in public, including their hands; smoking; shaving; and skinny jeans. 

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When Xi meets the Queen – what won’t happen

This blog post can also be read at SCMP.COM –

The last time a Chinese leader was given a state reception in Britain, in 2005, Queen Elizabeth pulled on her smartest red hat and coat and put it to President Hu Jintao and his lady wife: “Have you come far?”.

The monarch’s civility was slightly undermined, however, by her heir to the throne – Prince Charles played truant, muttering off-stage about human rights and the Dalai Lama. The UK’s then-Prime Minister, Tony Blair, meanwhile, spoke excitedly of “an unstoppable momentum” towards democracy for China. When the Chinese delegation left, the staff of Buckingham Palace were ordered to count the spoons.

OK, fine, that last bit was guesswork. It is impossible to know what goes on in the households of heads of state. It may be that Prince Philip, aka the Queen’s other half, aka Phil the Greek, hides spoons in guests’ luggage for his own sport. Still, now that Britain is desperate to become “China’s best partner in the West” – as the country’s Finance Minister George Osbourne put it in Beijing the other week – the parameters for any meaningful exchanges not involving the (proverbial) hoisting up of British skirts when Xi Jinping touches down in London later this month have narrowed.

In any event, here are just a few of the possible turns unlikely to be taken by events after plain-speaking Phil, 94, has broken the ice with a joke or two about the Japanese and fallen sleep.

1. David Cameron, the British Prime Minister, will insist that in return for a) welcoming Chinese involvement in new UK nuclear power plants, b) turning a deaf ear to American concerns about the security implications thereof, c) jumping on board with the Beijing-led Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank, and, above all, d) investing £700,000 (HK$8.2 million) to assist Chinese citizens who may wish to go on holiday to places in the north of England, British ministers do not in future expect to incur the Chinese state’s diplomatic wrath for talking to harmless old men from Tibet.

2. Mindful of the Chinese love of pork, Mr Cameron will then seek Mr Xi’s advice on how to handle those who write and publish materials alleging Prime Ministerial misadventures involving dead pigs. And how to stamp out seditious communications in general.

3. Mr Xi will thank the Prime Minister for dancing so nimbly to China’s tune but remind him, portentously, that always someone must pay the piper. The Queen’s bagpiper will nod sagely. China’s paramount leader will then thank his hosts for knowing when to “shut up about all that human rights crap, not like the Americans”, adding that Mr Osborne is a man of high principle who is respected throughout China and the world and that the two countries are now best friends forever. He will also promise to keep throwing chickenfeed at the minister’s pet projects and that the £700,000 will not be spent by officials on a night out in Macau.

4. Onto his second whiskey sour, Mr Xi’s charm offensive will continue with an apology to Britain’s Foreign Affairs Select Committee, whose members were barred from entering Hong Kong earlier this year. He will blame the unfortunate episode on an administrative cock-up, praise Britain for giving the world parliamentary democracy and vouch that his administration approves of universal suffrage – for voting out contestants on Chinese Idol.

5. The Queen will ask after the well-being of Zhou Yongkang and observe that by contrast to the unfortunate former Minister of Public Security’s grizzled rug, Mr Xi’s own hair seems vibrant for a man of his years. She will then ask the President if he would like to pet one of her corgis.

6. Jeremy Corbyn, the new hard-left leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition, will attempt to engage Mr Xi in a discussion of Lenin’s 1904 pamphlet One Step Forward, Two Steps Back, and about the timetable for achieving socialism on earth.

7. Charles will announce “sod it, I never wanted to be a constitutional monarch anyway”, harangue Mr Cameron for being a pushover, and for doing so little on behalf of the endangered Patagonian Toothfish, let rip on China for being ghastly and appalling, and then finally settle in to some light Buddhist chanting, the noise from which will waken Phil the Greek from his slumbers.