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Saying women are more ethical than men does not make it so

This article can also be read at SCMP.COM

“Women are not only stronger… they’re more ethical,” said the fashion designer Donatella Versace in a recent interview, adding: “the future belongs to women.”

I have been reminded of these comments over the past few days, by the fall from grace of Brazil’s female president, Dilma Rousseff.

Rousseff is being impeached, having failed to dispel links to a scandal involving kickbacks from Petrobras, the state-owned oil conglomerate, while she was the country’s energy minister. In that fate, she is rather less fortunate than Cristina Kirchner, who was president of neighbouring Argentina until last December: Kirchner managed two full terms, despite numerous claims of corruption, misuse of public funds and falsification of public statistics against her administration.

I grant you, being completely and utterly bent is something for which Latin American politicians are renowned. And sure enough, most of Rousseff’s political opponents, including the male ones waiting to supplant her regime, also stand accused of offences: perjury, money laundering, misappropriating dosh, forging documents, you name it. Politics in Brazil sounds like a barrel of laughs, unless you’re one of the governed. But, anyway, the point is this: the route to advancing equality of the sexes taken by women like Rousseff appears to be equality of venality. What happened to being more ethical? Eh, Donatella?

In the US, however vile and unpleasant Hillary Clinton’s opponents on the right, she knows better than to campaign on an ethics ticket. Firstly, she is a Clinton. And secondly, it seems improbable that she has ever held a position on any issue that hasn’t been tradeable for votes. Nevertheless, a two-fold pitch of being a woman and, by way of corollary, not Donald Trump, should be enough to put her in the White House. If that sounds like an oversimplification, it’s one that’s backed up by the polls: electing America’s first female president is the top reason given for backing the otherwise unloved Hillary in 2016.

The notion that women are a pacifying force in public life, that they are more collaborative and compassionate than men, who all want to be Julius Caesar, was perpetuated in the U.S. by the Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker in his 2011 book The Better Angels of Our Nature. Plenty of evidence contradicts that thesis, however. In a meta-analysis of  studies involving more than 12 million people, researchers at Iowa State University found an almost 80 per cent overlap between men and women on more than 75 per cent of psychological characteristics. In everything from morality to risk-taking, intelligence, personality traits, leadership style and satisfaction with life, they discovered men and women are just about the same.

The problem here for men arises in deciding which of these competing narratives is less likely to rouse feminists to anger. On the one hand, while they may encourage us to question what we think of as male characteristics, what moron among us would dare to deny any aspect of what women decide constitutes womanhood? On the other hand, it is probably as reckless, if not more, to state a belief in differences between the genders – unless one is willing to go the way of the gelded sycophant and admit that women are just better all-round at being human in the 21st century. That may well be the case but, Jesus, get some spine lads.

Back to actual politics, and women in it, though. For every Catherine the Great, Russia’s enlightened despot, and every Cory Aquino, who was regarded in the Philippines as a national treasure, I will show you a Wu Zetain and a Gloria Arroyo. Wu, who ruled China for 15 years from 690 AD, is thought to have strangled her own daughter in order to frame a rival. Arroyo, who left office in 2010, remains under hospital arrest in Manila, charged with plundering state coffers.

In Britain, opinion is still divided on Margaret Thatcher, but compassion and collaboration are not words unhesitatingly thrown her way. When she died, the singer Morrissey called her “A barbaric terror without an atom of humanity.” Another conservative, Angela Merkel, fares rather better in her country’s affections, but her approach to diplomacy has been described as “Kissingerian”, for which read cunning as a rat.

On the left, Indira Ghandi was a ruthless political operator who went to war with Pakistan and ruled India by decree during a two-year state of emergency. Julia Gillard’s backdoor grab for power in Australia would have impressed Machiavelli. And, seemingly quiescent over the persecution of the Rohingya Muslims, even Myanmar’s Nobel Peace Prize-winning Aung San Suu Kyi has let her halo slip since her release from house arrest in 2010.

None of this is to argue against having more female politicians. According to the United Nations, the percentage of women in politics globally has almost doubled in the past two decades, but it’s still only at 22 per cent. Some places are going at the issue with less zeal than others. Lots of countries now have some kind of gender quota system in place, though. And where I come from, the government in the devolved Scottish parliament has a completely gender-balanced cabinet, in addition to its three main parties all having female leaders.

It is rare nowadays that we get to say Scotland represents the future of anything. In this instance, though, it does. Personally, I think anyone who wants a career in politics should be put in chains, but the quotas? I’m all for them. In the west, women are doing better in education than men and they’re starting businesses at a higher rate too. Online, social media networks are culturally feminised spaces. Why shouldn’t public life fall in line? More quotas, I say. Women-only shortlists. Ban men from standing for election. Ban them from leaving the house. Just don’t tell me women are going to run the world differently.


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Ugly populism is not an argument against democracy

This post can also be read at SCMP.COM

The beacon light on the shining city on the hill is guttering. The barbarians are at the gate and the fox is in the henhouse. The worm, you may be assured, has scoffed the apple. Ladies and gents, American democracy is being exposed for a sham by an absurd buffoon who looks like a character from the funny papers. The mot du jour is dysfunctionality, and dysfunctionality is afflicting all known institutions grievously – but some (political parties, the electoral process) more than others. With the rise of Donald Trump, we have reached the inevitable end-point of politics’ showbusiness vajazzling. America’s Got Talent but it’s being offered a preening, pelt-haired Tony Soprano instead and if it’s repulsed it’s also enamoured.

I offer my apologies. Words along these lines are in over-supply right now – as likely to be voiced by disbelieving American conservatives as by liberals, by people with a dog in the fight as by despairing onlookers in other parts of the world. It’s almost as though Trump’s detractors have begun to echo and amplify the nihilism of his message. Millions of Americans, it is understood, have lost faith: in government, in political parties, in big business, in the media. Trump exploits this loss of faith to build a following. Trump-watchers respond that this following is further proof of the loss of faith, and of the dysfunctionality of the system – of the parties’ inertia, of a debased campaign financing model, of the remaking of politics as a reality gameshow. Others look at his followers and blame the situation on their stupidity and susceptibility. Either way, if you believe many parts of the commentariat, it’s democracy itself that is kaput.

This is a negative message for Americans to consume. For folks in places around the world where democracy does not exist it is all the more depressing. Indeed, the only people likely to take any solace from it are those who consider democracy a virus anyway. People like the Chinese Communist Party and its friends. Look, they might say of the world’s most hubristic polity – democracy is a mass of contradictions that offers only the illusion of freedom. Institutions are at the mercy of big money, Congress is gridlocked, mob violence attends public rallies and demagoguery is cutting through. In such an analysis, radical populist movements – whether in America or in Hong Kong, where we have a growing “localist” faction that’s driven in part by anger at the city’s “mainlandisation” and a failure to address blue-collar concerns – are warnings against disrupting the corporatist status quo.

There’s little doubt that Trump is garnering support not only for the populism of his message but also for his abandonment of the normal rules of civility – those are for the establishment “schmucks” on all sides who’ve propagated a system of top-down technocracy. Flat-footing his opponents by being provocative and boorish has played well with large constituencies of voters who are tired of party automatons. Other candidates gotta serve somebody – big pharma, Wall Street; The Donald’s personal wealth allows him to make a virtue of serving only himself. His anti-establishment credentials thus defined, he has eschewed consistency. Who knows what a Trump presidency might have in store for the world? His instincts seem not only protectionist but isolationist. He thinks America gets a raw deal as the world’s policeman. On the other hand, he wants to “rebuild” its military, and he wants to “beat” China, Mexico, Russia and Iran. If there’s a unifying message, it might be that the rest of the world can go to hell.

Trump also believes in torture, mass deportations and banning certain monotheistic types not of a Judaeo-Christian persuasion. The man most likely to gain the Republican Party presidential nomination is an authoritarian oaf. Does this invalidate democracy? No, it does not. Not in any real sense. Authoritarian thugs can be voted in; in democracies they can also be voted out. Meanwhile, the United States Constitution enshrines checks on the executive branch of government. That hoariest of Winston Churchill quotes serves: “Democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

In a more pragmatic sense, a Trump candidacy, while representing a nadir, may actually be good for the GOP: it may cause it to fracture, but the healing process would surely return it to a more centrist, consensus-building course. Already, the Trump enema has convinced some conservative thinkers that what’s required is to develop more policies that appeal to working people. Moreover, if – as pollsters anticipate – Hillary Clinton wins a two-way race against Trump in November, she could end up with a uniquely bi-partisan mandate.

To those who despair, or gloat, at the state of U.S. democracy, however, one need only point out one abiding characteristic of it to sustain a more romantic view. If millions of Americans have “lost faith” in politics, then millions of others do not appear at all cynical about the enterprise (and it’s true that both Trump and his leftist counterpart in the Democratic primaries, Bernie Sanders, have brought entirely new groups of voters into the process). A passion for voting and elections has been a feature of American civil society since at least the 1830s, when the French writer Alexis de Tocqueville exclaimed on it in his classic book Democracy in America. A little further back, Aristotle defined man as a political animal (zoon politikon) with an innate need to debate questions of justice and the common good. Sometimes this gives rise to expressions of humanity’s uglier nature. But no, democracy itself is not the virus.


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Disenfranchised

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post’s Post Magazine

At first I wasn’t all that bothered. When it was decreed back in 2012 that anyone living in Scotland would be allowed to vote in this month’s referendum on independence from the rest of Britain – and that Scots living outside of Scotland would not – the whole business seemed a tad unreal. On a pragmatic level, it gave me an excuse (being in the latter camp) not to have to muster an opinion whenever anyone in Hong Kong picked up on my accent. Don’t ask me, mate; my opinion doesn’t count.

It should count, though. I can’t think of any ballot in my voting lifespan where my vote made a fart of a difference to anything much. But this time it’s different. Not only does it look like being a close-run thing, there’s actually quite a lot at stake – like, you know, possibly disbanding a 307-year-old nation state. It feels a bit like the family are squabbling over whether to sell up the ancestral home, but in the meantime they’ve thrown out all your stuff and sent the dog to live in kennels. Or something.

Ex-pats can vote in normal elections in the UK for 15 years after they leave. Including the 800,000 Scots living in parts of the UK other than Scotland, however, in this instance some 1.15 million people have been wiped off the franchise.

The suspicion among many ex-pats is that the Scottish nationalists have engineered it this way because they think we’d all vote “no”. Well, maybe. But the reality is that Scots have always gone abroad, and will continue to do so even after independence. Many of them go back. Right now, they’re being made to feel a bit less welcome.


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England’s dreaming

This article can be found on Spiked 

It’s not just about counting the bawbees, then. However belatedly, some on the No side in the battle for Scotland have been waking up to the notion that there are votes to be won by making the emotional case for the United Kingdom’s survival. The Nationalists have accused David Cameron at various points of trying to ‘lovebomb’ Scots. But hey, why not?

In a sense, this is less to do with what being part of Britain has given Scotland – or arguing over how the Union prospers Scotland or does not – and somewhat more to do with recognising the contributions of Scotland and Scots to having shaped Britain. In his appeal, in the Telegraph, to a half-dormant sense of Britishness, Ian Duncan Smith last month wrote effusively of the Union as a family and a ‘kinship of free peoples’. The subtext, aimed at Scots and non-Scots alike, ran along the lines of a notion that had hitherto been expressed rather well by the journalist Alex Massie – that ‘Scotland is Britain… for without Scotland there’s a much, much lesser Britain.’

It’s apparent too, though, that for every lovebomber there are others in England who believe she would be better off in a ‘lesser’ Britain and well rid of the Scots, with their statist ways and tendency to inflict men like Gordon Brown on everyone.

Plainly, Gordon Brown himself sees matters somewhat differently and has blown once more into the public square with a weighty-ish new tome: My Scotland, Our Britain. ‘At the heart of [Brown’s] understanding of British values,’ writes the man from the Guardian who was brave enough to read it, ‘there lies an unexpectedly lovely fusion: that Scottish principles of solidarity, civil society and “the democratic intellect” have, through the union, entwined themselves with English values of liberty, tolerance and pragmatism.’

IDS’ list of things Scotland has given Britain, by contrast, includes the Bank of England – or at least William Paterson, its supposed founder. Paterson was a great advocate for the Union, although it must be noted he was also one of the originators of the disastrous Darien Scheme that brought Scotland to its knees, so it’s likely his own interests were at stake. There were, certainly, more notable Scottish architects – conservative and radical, Tory and Whig – of Britain’s nascent identity. Adam Smith elaborated the theoretical framework within which the new nation pioneered capitalism; James Mill’s History of British India had a profound influence on its imperial destiny; and actual architects such as Robert Adam and James Gibbs were responsible for many of the defining buildings of the age in both England and Scotland.

David Hume and James Mackintosh, meanwhile, laid the foundation for modern histories of England – of England, not of Britain, nor of the British Isles. And, well, here’s the thing: post-Union, England influenced Scotland’s sense of Scottishness in incalculable ways; but so too did Scots help to shape England’s sense of itself. Were it not for Scotland, one might suggest, there would be a ‘lesser’ England.

The key historical figure here is probably Sir Walter Scott. The most widely read novelist (in his own lifetime) perhaps of any age, Scott created and romanticised myths about Scotland’s pre-modern nationhood precisely in order to secure Scotland’s status as a full, rather than subordinate, partner in the United Kingdom. With Ivanhoe, however, he focused England’s attentions on its own medieval past, in the process stamping the myth of a country forged out of the conflict between proud Saxon yeoman and Norman oppressor indelibly on its consciousness.

And then, of course, there was Thomas Carlyle, the Scot who rhapsodised about England and Englishness probably more than any other writer before or since, and whose studies of the English character – “frank, simple, rugged and yet courteous” – still have a certain currency. His anti-intellectualism also remains something of an English tradition.

Carlyle’s somewhat Reactionary outlook later in life has not endeared him to the Scottish establishment of today. He also wrote, in a letter to Goethe, that “We English, especially we Scotch, love Burns”. Even Scott, who occasionally refers to Scotland as North Britain, would not have approved. But even so, though today’s go-it-alone Englishman might rejoice at a Yes vote in Scotland come September, he may never quite shake Scotland’s influence on his national culture.

This article can be found on Spiked 


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The West’s exam stress

A version of this article can be found at Spiked

One supposes people are right to be concerned about how simply dreadful Western schooling has become, as confirmed by the most recent statistics from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. We already knew that Britain ranked 26th for maths, 23rd for reading and 21st for science in the latest Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) league tables. Last month, however, it emerged that, in Britain and the United States, even the offspring of professionals are letting us down: apparently they’re being outperformed in exams by the children of factory workers and cleaners in parts of the Far East.

Perhaps Britons will take heart, in this reverse, from the fact that until fairly recently Team GB was completely useless at sport, too: at the 1996 Olympic Games, the country’s athletes came 36th in the medal table, behind Belgium, Algeria and Kazakhstan. We could have washed our hands of them and consoled ourselves with our prowess in pub sports, such as darts, but we didn’t – the powers that be jolly well rolled up their sleeves, put Lord Coe in charge of things and threw National Lottery funding at lots of people. In Beijing, in 2008, Team GB came fourth in the table, and in London, in 2012, third, winning just about enough gold medals to offset Gordon Brown’s firesale of the nation’s bullion a decade previously. Seemingly, British children partake in less physical activity now than ever before, but that is beside the point: the turnaround shows there is nothing inevitable about national decline.

For the right, at least since Thatcher and Reagan, halting such decline in the West has often been a powerful motivating narrative. The current British government’s Tory education secretary, Michael Gove, frequently appears to conduct policy as a form of warfare against his ideological opponents; but at least you know where he stands on this declining standards stuff – this rot, if you will. He believes the soft liberal emphases of prevalent teaching models must be diluted, that we must overcome our aversion to “passing on knowledge”, or rote learning, and that children need pushing a bit harder. In short, we need to copy how the Chinese and the Singaporeans do things – else our economic competitiveness will be increasingly blunted.

Who knows – maybe Mr Gove’s opponents on the left would argue Britain needs to be less competitive. The case against reducing all measurement of educational success or otherwise to a series of outputs that can be charted on international league tables has, at least, been forcefully made. But supposing his assumptions are all correct and our future prosperity depends on pupils performing better in core tests, then what next? Mr Gove’s underling, Liz Truss, led a delegation of English head teachers to China on a “fact-finding” mission last week. If hers was was meant to be a truly knowledge-based approach, it is to be hoped she kept her eyes wide open – for whatever the failings of British schools, China’s offer no panacea.

It should not, you will agree, require an actual visit to China to establish that pupils there and in many other parts of Asia perform well in exams. That is no secret. But nor should it be a surprise. They tend to start practising at an early age. In Hong Kong, for example, formal exams kick in at the outset of primary school. By secondary school, private tutors are viewed almost as compulsory if you want to keep up with your classmates: a University of Hong Kong survey last year found that 54 per cent of third form (age 14) and 72 per cent of sixth form students go for extra tuition after school.

In China, the average school pupil nowadays spends five hours more in school than his American counterpart each day, but cramming has lineage in the country. The imperial civil service exams, or keju, taken by teenagers for some 1300 years, lasted several days and covered everything from arithmetic to horsemanship and the writing out of lengthy quotations from Confucian classics. Their modern equivalent is the gaokao, the national university entrance exam; in recent years, an estimated 10 million or so candidates have competed annually for around six million spots at Chinese universities. Every year, Chinese newspapers fill up with tales of exam-time suicides. In 2012, it was reported that a school in Hubei province had hooked up gaokao hopefuls to intravenous drips while they studied – to save them the distraction of nourishing themselves.

But many in China – and in places such as Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore – believe their sons and daughters will find themselves better jobs at home if they have a degree from overseas. In the 2011-2012 academic year, there were 194,029 Chinese students studying in the US, accounting for 25 per cent of all foreign students in the country. The bill, for tuition and fees alone, can run to $200,000 per student, over four years. But here’s the thing – it would be wrong to assume that it is only the wealthy in Asia who are prepared to spend big on their children’s education. According to the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, a third of Chinese students studying abroad in 2010 were from working-class families. Research indicates high levels of consumer expenditure on education, across all income brackets, in China, South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore, and reports abound of parents selling their homes, grandparents forgoing retirement and household debt soaring to fund junior’s advancement.

It is hard not to be a little awed by that level of sacrifice, even if many in the West find it somehow anathema. It is conceivable, certainly, that Michael Gove, though himself lucky enough – or, rather, bright enough – to have won a scholarship to attend Aberdeen Grammar and then studied at Oxford in the days when that still cost nothing, sees a nobility in it. But the pertinent question must be this: what does it avail the debtors? Well, here’s another statistic: 25 per cent of Chinese Ivy League entrants drop out. And the reasons? According to university officials quoted by the Wall Street Journal last year, many Chinese students, accustomed to an education system that rewards rote memorisation and exam training, find it difficult to adapt to those institutions’ liberal arts bias, which exalts analytical and critical thinking. The Journal’s report added: “Students are sometimes forced to choose between working hard to assimilate culturally and keeping their grades up, a failure to be college-ready that could be linked to the large number of falsified application documents.” The newspaper then cited a study by Zinch China, a consulting group that advises American colleges, claiming an estimated 90 per cent of Chinese applicants’ recommendation letters are fake, 70 per cent of their essays are written by someone else and 50 per cent of their high school transcripts are manipulated.

According to the Telegraph, Ms Truss’s visit to China “could lead to [English] schools adopting Chinese-style tactics such as more evening classes and eliminating time-wasting between lessons to boost performance in key subjects”. It also quoted her as saying Britain should learn from Chinese schools’ “positive philosophy”. It seems unlikely, then, that she will have returned armed with a dossier on falsified transcripts, but it doesn’t take much digging to corroborate some of Zinch China’s claims. School teachers on international programmes at prestigious high schools in Shenzhen spoken to for background on this article confirmed the inflation of subject grades by schools is common practice and unmonitored by overseas admissions authorities – the focus for schools trying to help pupils gain admission to American institutions is on preparing them for the US college admissions exam, the Scholastic Assessment Test (SAT), which consists primarily of sections on critical reading, mathematics and writing; scholastic transcripts are included in college applications, but there’s no way of checking that they give a true reflection of a candidate’s actual attainment.

What is also clear is that the pressure to gain acceptance to lofty seats of learning is not coming from young people themselves, nor even the Chinese state, but rather from those funnelling the cash: Chinese parents. Correspondingly, it seems unlikely they will accede to the government’s proposed fazing out of exams before the age of 9 and written homework before the age 12. Similar softening measures have been ignored in South Korea. In Hong Kong, a 2012 study found a third of students aged between 12 and 17 were depressed. It’s a wild guess, but parental pressure and expectation from early years might be factors.

In the 1850s, China was devastated by the Taiping Rebellion, in which an uprising led by one Hong Xiquan – who, following a nervous breakdown precipitated by his repeated failure to pass his keju exams, came to believe he was the brother of Jesus Christ – resulted in a civil war that killed tens of millions. A few short years later, on the other side of the East China Sea, Emperor Meiji – wishing to make his country wealthier – had set about Westernising Japan. But there was a problem: as the historian Niall Ferguson recounts in Civilisation: The West and the Rest, neither the Emperor nor his courtiers could work out which elements of Western culture were crucial to its economic success. And so they ended up copying everything from Western clothes and hairstyles to the practice of colonising foreigners. Unluckily, their adventures in empire-building came at exactly the moment when the costs of imperialism began to exceed the benefits. That particular experiment did not end well, as history records.

Ferguson refers to the East catching up on the West in the 21st Century as “The Great Reconvergence”. Let us, by all means, marvel at how China in particular has pulled that Reconvergence off. Let us even try to emulate aspects of the East’s success. But for heaven’s sake, let’s not persuade ourselves that Western education is in such a state that copying Chinese models will fix it.

A version of this article can be found at Spiked


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Xi’s bun show

This article was published in the South China Morning Post’s Post Magazine

From the diary of President Xi Jinping, as leaked to Post Magazine by shadowy forces:

“Dear diary, just can’t decide what to do with the spin doctors – they’ve made a sow’s ear of this pork bun shop business. I mean, yeah, it sounded like a great idea: ‘Get out there and meet the plebs,’ they said. ‘Then we’ll plaster it over the internet – well, the bits of the internet you allow – and you’ll come up smiling. Man of the people and all that. Bingo!

“Only they didn’t tell me about the song. Whose moronic idea was that? ‘Big brother Xi … You warm the hearts of the common people in the cold winter’. Jeez, it makes me sound all cuddly. All I did was fix the old kisser in a grin and stuff dumplings and stew (horrible stuff – backed me up no end) down it. Thought the driver would never honk for us to leave – we had to have words about that later. Now they’re all talking about the cult of Xi. Who wants that? Not me.

“Or maybe I do. Can’t make up my mind. Liyuan’s always telling me I’m cuddly. I tell her there speaks the cancer of bourgeois liberalism, but then she starts singing The Laundry Song (The army and people are one family/ Helping us to wash our clothes) and I let it slide.

“Anyway, the propaganda team are under surveillance. Why can’t they be more like Hollande’s guys? Nobody wrote a stupid song about him after he nipped out to see that woman about a dog.

“Maybe I should get a dog. Not a big scary one, mind, but nothing too cuddly either.”


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Let there be light

This article was published in the South China Morning Post’s Post Magazine

Trading in the online currency Bitcoin has just gone the way of most things the Chinese government fears or doesn’t understand (they’re not the only ones) and been banned in the mainland after huge demand there saw it surge in value. The news also came fast on the heels of reports that the so-called Great Firewall of China is under attack from uptake of a new software programme that allows users to get round web censorship: Lantern.

It may well be that by the time you read this Lantern – which has already been put to the test by dissidents in Iran – will have had Beijing’s hose turned on it, but its emergence demonstrates that rearguard attempts to wage war on internet activity are likely doomed to failure. Because the thing about the web is that there’s always a workaround. The technology it has spawned and put at the world’s disposal already outstrips the might of governments to control it. It’s about time they realised this.

It’s not just the Chinese and the Iranians (and the Russians) – all of whom seem to think a closed, national “intranet” model is possible – who don’t quite seem to get it, though. British Prime Minister David Cameron keeps talking about being able to turn off the tap of online pornography. Does he really believe any “fix” his taxpayer-funded IT wallahs can come up with will be any match for internetland’s plumbers? If governments can’t control things like porn or copyright, what hope have they of reining in alternative currencies, or thought?

East and West alike seem to fear “the dark web”. We learn that it’s a nasty place, one where people sell drugs and plan terror attacks and eat babies. But actually it’s just a way of connecting to the world with anonymity. No wonder it’s the new bogey man.

As the efforts of the NSA to be the world’s listening post (its priest, if you will) have shown, at considerable cost to America’s soft power – attempting to master the web is a losing game. If there’s a war going, the geeks have already won.


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Squeezes and wheezes

Tax may seem like an obvious subject for this column (which was published as a Rant in the South China Morning Post’s Post Magazine) – nobody likes having their money taken away, do they? – but there’s been a lot of noise about it lately, mostly emanating from places that don’t have their houses much in order.

What our European friends – all up in arms about individuals and large corporations using various Machiavellian stratagems to shunt their wealth into tax havens – seem unable to grasp is that businesses nowadays don’t so much avoid tax as choose where to pay it (if production and sales can be easily shifted around the world, why stick to one tax jurisdiction?). The answer, garcons and frauleins, therefore is to shut up and be more accommodating – after the example of Hong Kong, where tax is simple, flat and low.

Of course, there’s plenty wrong with how things are done in this city: the government sneakily drip-feeds building land on to the market to keep prices high, the “trickle down” effect making life more expensive for everyone; it offers tax wheezes and loopholes and exemptions; and nobody bothers much to hold it to account. But, as Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying was keen to point out on his recent visit to the United States, our business-friendly arrangements do fill up the coffers.

Politicians in Britain, meanwhile, have seized on the word “immoral” to describe companies such as Google, at whose altars they previously worshipped; while campaigners styling themselves as modern-day Robin Hoods – quite forgetting that it was the Sheriff of Nottingham who collected taxes – have been doing the exchequer’s bidding by demanding corporations cough up more for the government to spend. The risk is they’ll frighten all the dastardly rich off to places like Hong Kong, leaving old Robin with no one to steal from.

This article was published in the South China Morning Post’s Post Magazine