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.
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.
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.
A pre-election piece for Asia Times
A piece for Asia Times on Asian voters in America. Read it here.
This article can also be read at Asia Times
It’s my understanding from meeting people who know him that the English journalist James Delingpole is a decent, thoughtful sort of fellow, despite being way further to the right than seems entirely compatible with possession of a full set of marbles. Personally, even when he is being wrong-headed, I rather enjoy his writing – for its honesty, its freewheeling chutzpah, its soft-pedalled erudition.
It was fairly obvious, though, from reading his September 24 column in Britain’s Spectator magazine, that he must have spent most of his recent visit to Hong Kong in the pub. Starting off with an anecdote about taxis is usually a giveaway sign that you’ve neglected to do any homework whatsoever. His piece descends from there into a Cook’s Tour of free-market phantasmagoria.
Milton Friedman spent his twilight years evangelizing about Hong Kong and how its economic success proved the irreproachability of pure free-market capitalism. Delingpole merely picks up the baton. Hong Kong’s laissez-faire, “red-in-tooth-and-claw” environment and its low taxes lead him to realise “how incorrigibly, nauseatingly socialistic most western nations are.” The only basis he provides for this realisation is that his step-son has a better job in Hong Kong than he could land in London, despite – I’m reading between the lines – not being especially bright.
The main problem with this narrative about Hong Kong’s development is that it was only partially true when Friedman was espousing it and it is even less so now. Sure, Hong Kong has very low marginal tax rates and, at around 18 percent, low state spending relative to GDP. Moreover, it consistently scores high on indexes measuring ease of doing business. These indicators can be misleading, though: Hong Kong, while spending nothing on defense, is far more statist than outsiders generally perceive.
For decades, the Hong Kong government has offered advanced social welfare services along vaguely European lines. It provides an excellent public health care system and funds education and social security. In public transport and utilities, it grants monopoly franchises and holds equity in them. And it imposes strict rent controls for the roughly 30 percent of Hongkongers who live in public housing, thereby indirectly subsiding labor.
There’s plenty of indirect taxation too. Exorbitant real estate prices have caused spiralling inequality but they also keep government revenues high even as income taxes remain flat and low. How this works is that the government owns all the land in the territory (capitalism, James?) and drip feeds it on lease to a small handful of developers, who in turn control the supply of housing to keep the market inflated for buyers and renters.
Without help from their families, households with two above-average earners can just about save for a deposit to buy a home – provided they don’t eat out much or go on holiday for a few years. (If they want to have children, their careers, mercifully, needn’t be interrupted: childcare is provided by an army of imported female workers from the Philippines and Indonesia who earn a pittance and have next to no rights.)
For those a rung below, there’s no chance. In the first quarter of this year, the average wage in Hong Kong decreased to HK$15,500 (US$2,000) a month. At the same time, a survey classified Hong Kong homes as being the “least affordable” anywhere, ever, with average flat prices surging to 19 times gross annual median income.
One might argue that it’s not the government’s job in a laissez-faire system to fix this problem, but the point is that the government’s role skews the market already and it’s not in favour of the vast majority of Hong Kong people, however hard-working and entrepreneurial they might be. Indeed, there is a case to be made that Hong Kong’s mantra of “positive non-interventionism” has never been more than a soundbite anyway.
In the banking sector alone, the history of Hong Kong since the 1950s onwards is one of repeated bailouts, government rescues and regulatory capture by HSBC and Standard Chartered to stop outside banks gaining licences. So much for Friedman’s notion of free and open markets. Interest rates were set by a cartel until 2001.
The reality of Hong Kong is that it has institutionalised cartels and monopolies in almost every sector of life. Those in political office work hand in hand with the same same business elites who make up a large part of the committees who appoint them. There are some 300,000 SMEs in the city and yet its economy is dominated by a handful of conglomerates. According to a Wall Street Journal report in 2013, the six biggest “take in at least 23 cents of every dollar that residents spend, controlling Hong Kong’s biggest mobile-phone network, its electrical system, its bus system, the vast majority of the buildings making up its iconic skyline, plus two-thirds of its private housing market and 90% of its supermarket sales.”
There’s no doubt that the ingenuity of the private sector helped Hong Kong to grow its per-capita income from 28 percent of Britain’s in 1960 to being almost on a level pegging with the United States by that measure today. But so too did government spending on the poor, the fact that Hong Kong is an entrepot economy and the surplus value it has attained from attracting global companies to make it their home.
As for Mr Delingpole, I get it: you need somewhere to hold up as a paragon of the ‘virtue of selfishness‘, because the “socialism” being foisted on Britain by its Conservative government is crap. But if you see it in Hong Kong, you’re mistaken.
This article can also be read at SCMP.COM
I am often struck by how well-informed Hongkongers are about stuff happening elsewhere. After the referendums on Scottish independence and Brexit, for example, many here seem to have more of a grasp on Britain’s complex constitutional affairs than large swathes of the people who voted.
The complexity of Hong Kong’s own affairs is of a different order, however. For a city so inhabited and visited by foreigners, it seems to me that its political situation is not well-understood by onlookers and harder to grasp than most. No doubt this is partly due to a lack of curiosity, and partly because international media take only superficial notice. It’s also because politics here is a conversation that tends to defy the outsider points of access.
Here, then, ahead of next month’s Legislative Council elections, is my stab at a 10-point guide to Hong Kong politics for the ingenue and the bystander – and the hordes on social media baffled as to why the city has its own Olympic team.
1. Everything in Hong Kong revolves around the Basic Law, the city’s mini-constitution. Whenever any action is proposed, someone will protest that it is against the Basic Law.
2. The Basic Law is much-cherished. Disagreement is rife, though, as to what large chunks of it mean, and, more importantly, who gets to decide. Lawyers argue as to whether its legitimacy derives from the Sino-British Joint Declaration on Hong Kong, of 1984, or from the National People’s Congress. The smart money will always be on the NPC making its own mind up. The internet tells me that these days the word “basic” can mean “thoughtless and vapid.”
3. A number of rights and freedoms are protected under the Basic Law, in-keeping with the principle of “one country, two systems”. The two systems it refers to are i) cadre capitalism in mainland China, and ii) crony capitalism in Hong Kong.
4. Article 45 of the Basic Law enshrines the “ultimate aim” of having the city’s Chief Executive elected via universal suffrage. There has been something of a hold-up with this. Last year, lawmakers sank proposals that would have allowed Beijing to pre-screen candidates, reasoning this would be against the Basic Law. The proposals’ sponsors argued, meanwhile, that the breach would be in allowing candidates who opposed the Central Government to stand.
5. There are political parties of the left and of the right in Hong Kong, liberals and conservatives. These distinctions pale, however, against where they each stand on the issue of what to do with the Basic Law.
6. Whenever Hongkongers have time to do anything, they form a new political party. The result is more parties than anyone can count, far less remember the names of. There are currently 16 parties represented in the Legislative Council, alongside 10 independent lawmakers. In the upcoming election, at least three dozen parties have put candidates forward.
7. The largest single party in Legco since 2004, The Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong, does everything it can to block democratic reform. The Liberal Party is not liberal on social issues and also opposes democracy. It is in accord with the pan-democrat parties, however, in seeking to defenestrate Leung Chun-ying, the city’s current Chief Executive. The pan-democrat camp tends to splinter every so often, like a Roman candle.
8. The last few months have seen the pace of party formation accelerate, primarily under the banner of “localism” – a reaction, in large part, to the stalled delivery of democratic reforms. Polls suggest more and more Hongkongers view themselves solely as Hongkongers, and not as citizens of China.
9. Most localist groups adopt an openly hostile stance towards towards the Central government. The most radical call for full independence for Hong Kong, with some suggesting a period of transition involving return to British rule. It is unclear as to whether Britain has been party to discussions. The English names of localist parties – Demosisto and Youngspiration, for example – often sound like 1980s pop groups.
10. Controversially, six intended localist candidates have been disqualified from running for election, while localist organisations have had difficulty registering as companies. According to the Electoral Affairs Commission, arguing in favour of full autonomy for Hong Kong runs counter to the Basic Law.
All perfectly clear, now? As I thought…
This article can also be read at SCMP.COM
It’s telling that when they were lining up to scold Britain in 2013, both Russia and China took aim at its self-image. A small island that no-one pays attention to was the verdict of Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov. “Just an old European country apt for travel and study” chimed the Chinese Communist Party-owned Global Times.
Fear of insignificance has rather haunted vital regions of the British psyche, perhaps for as long as the country has been without imperial possessions. Certainly, as detailed in Lord Chilcot’s voluminous and long-awaited report on his inquiry into Britain’s role in the Iraq War, published earlier this month, it haunted Tony Blair.
The former Prime Minister’s determination to go to war, Chilcot tells us, was underpinned by a sense of anxiety about Britain’s role on the world stage. In particular, he wanted to show that its ‘special relationship’ with the United States mattered; that however much George W Bush might have been prepared to walk a unilateralist line in 2003, deep down America really needed Britain on board.
Chilcot’s report is about five times the length of War and Peace. Unpacking it has therefore served as a distraction from the fallout of Britain’s vote to leave the European Union – a decision that has caused its own surfeit of angst. It has also meant assessments of the freshly-exeunted David Cameron’s Prime Ministerial legacy have jockeyed with renewed interest in the record of a man (Blair) who left office nine years ago.
The trouble with all of this is that Blair’s enemies – and they are legion, on both the left and right of British politics – hardly needed to read what Chilcot had to say about him, because they had already made their minds up as to the extent of his villainy. However nuanced the report, enough of it can be marshalled to succour the notion that the war was fought illegally – and for some that’s all that matters, as though proving the point might make the big bad world more ordered, more rational.
Britain’s forces were ill-equipped and ill-prepared for war in Iraq. Their attempts to hold Basra ended in humiliation. Unfortunately, knowing these things gives us no better idea of how to deal with failing or failed autocratic and authoritarian states in the Middle East.
As far as Blair is concerned, his part in the downfall of Iraq’s Saddam Hussein was at odds with how he approached other despots in the region. In his attempts to seek engagement with Bashar al-Assad in Syria, Muammar Gaddafi in Libya, and Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, he understood the trade-off between stability and tolerating intractable regimes. That none of them grew any less intractable led, by and by, to the Arab Spring, and to the civil wars that have followed.
By 2011, however, there was little appetite in the west for new military entanglements. Western powers willed democracy but withheld any meaningful support to see it delivered. In Syria, moderate rebels looked for help where they could get it, only to find themselves engulfed by a millenialist death cult. The result is a murderous stalemate that has caused about 11 million people to flee their homes. The shockwaves from Syria’s collapse are felt in all parts of the Middle East and Europe.
There are those for whom all of this goes back to the invasion of Iraq, for whom Islamic State’s neo-medieval brutality is a phenomenon born entirely of Western fallacy and folly. Neither provable nor completely falsifiable, theirs is a view of the world that will retain its appeal sufficiently enough to ensure, if nothing else, that Tony Blair’s reputation remains benighted, whatever the success of moves now to impeach or prosecute him.
The rueful irony is that for all his foreign policy failures, Blair was an internationalist to the core. His government – reforming, progressive, pluralistic – embraced globalisation and declared Britain more open to the world than ever before. When he stood down, he left it a little less gray and a little more gay than he had found it. Arguably, it’s his vision voters finally rejected with Brexit. Whether it can survive remains to be seen.