Chinese New Year: How far China have come and how far they still have to go

Chinese-New-YearChina has come a long way in 101 years.

Back in 1911 (during the year of the pig), China’s final dynasty, Qing collapsed after nearly a  150 years of gasping for breath. The encroachment of the Western powers (and later Japan) with their unequal treaties, opium wars and favourite nation clauses had been met by ‘head in the sand, fingers in the eyes’ approach by the de facto ruler Empress Dowager Cixi for over fifty years before her death in 1908.

Although yesterday marked the start of a new lunar year and a new chapter of China’s history, tomorrow marks the 101th anniversary of the edict forcing child Emperor Puyi from the throne in 1912.

This measure led to the brief dictatorship of General Yuan Shikai and the beginning of the Republican era.

It is remarkable to think that after the traumas the country faced over the past century with seemingly endless civil war, the rise of communism and the brutal of life under Chairman Mao that the country is on the verge of being the most strongest economic power on earth in the next 10 years.

But we should not be too quick to sit back and watch. Despite America’s recent ‘Asian Pivot’ and the prospect of the Trans-Pacific Partnership potentially being formed as a more powerful trading bloc than the EU with China at its centre, China’s future could still be rocky.

The Chinese economy, whilst still the strongest in the world, is starting to slow down with the effect of the Eurozone crisis and the continued financial turmoil across the world. So they are unlikely to see the same double digit growth figures they’ve enjoyed over the past few years.

That is not to say the country doesn’t have anything to look forward to. Construction is now under way to build the world’s largest skyscraper, Sky City One in Changsha, Hunan province in south west China.

Similarly, China will be taking further steps into the space race with their lunar probe Chang’e 3 being launched later in the year.

However with the continuing  Bo Xilai scandal’s twists and turns remaining in the news and Xi still not fully cementing his authority over the biggest population on earth 2013 could still be a bumpy ride.

The Chinese authorities are still trying in vain to control the tide of information leaks but new innovations in telecommunications continue to outpace them. The power of microblogging sites has persisted despite manifold attempts to shut them down and it looks like nothing will change as we head into the new year.

So the dissident in China is likely to only build in the next few years. The examples of Ai WeiWei and Chen Guangcheng are international embarrassments to the nation which tries so hard to maintain control. While most foreign powers are too awestruck by China’s economic might to pay much attention to internal human rights abuses, these controversies are getting harder and harder to hide from the internet savvy Chinese population.

So as Xi tries to assert his authority over the next few years he will have several different challenges.

One way he could assert his authority is to go down the Cristina De Kirchner Fernandez route and continue to claim Japanese territory .

The ongoing dispute with Japan over the Senkaku Islands (know as the Diaoyu islands in Chinese and the Pinnacle Islands in English) has historical roots but has only really come to the fore in the past year. Although the islands are closer geographically to mainland Japan they are on the edge of China’s tectonic plate which is traditionally viewed as the extent of Chinese maritime influence.

The dispute goes back to the days when what is now the Okinawa prefecture of Japan was an independent kingdom. It survived by offering tributes to both China and Japan but adopting Chinese fashion, style and way of life. When Japan and China were forced to trade by the Western powers, instead of sticking their heads in the sand like China, Japan embraced change and the Meji Restoration cement a central government across the country instead of the Shogunate that had ruled for hundreds of years.

This included Okinawa which remained under Japanese rule from 1895 until America annexed it at the end of the Second World War.They gave it back in 1972 under the Okinawa Reversion Treaty and the Senkaku Islands were part of the deal.

Ever since China has not given up its territorial claim to them but has done very little to demand them back. They argue that as the islands were administered along with Taiwan after Japan annexed it in 1895, the islands should have been returned to China in 1945 as well. They claim that the then Nationalist leader, Chiang Kai Shek was too busy fighting the civil war against the Communists and too dependent on US support to fight his case properly.

The new conflict was sparked by a comment from the Toyko Governor in April 2012 Shintaro Ishihara saying he would use public money to buy them back from their private Japanese owner. In August several Hong Kong activists sailed to the uninhabited islands but were sent back, 10 days later Japanese activists did the same. In December 2012 a Chinese aeroplane was said to have violated their air space and in January of this year, Beijing said they were conducting a geological survey of the area.

Neither side seems to want to go to war over the islands but the tensions could be the perfect opportunity for Xi to distract from problems at home like De Kirchener is trying unsuccessfully to do in Argentina over the Falkland Islands.

Despite its new found status and power China is slightly licking the wounds of its past. A war with Japan could go a long way to healing the humiliation of losing a war with them, a smaller nation that had previously looked up to them, in 1895 which overtaking them economically hasn’t achieved.

China is the oldest and biggest continuous civilisation in the world. It has a delicate future ahead of it which could cement its rule as the most powerful nation on earth or it could crumb back into chaos. History is still crucial to China, and they will try to right wrongs in the twentieth century alongside power building in the twentieth first.

The youth timebomb: why the angry generation is becoming the militant generation

talibanFor many years people have been trying to explain why rational young men turn to extremism. From French revolution era protests like the Babeuf plot, the exploits of the IRA to modern day Islamist extremists at home and abroad, academics, psychologists and historians have tried to understand why they commit such heinous acts against their fellow men.

Now, not for the first time, sexual availability (and the lack there of) has been cited as the main cause of Afghan men joining the Taliban by journalist Mujib Mashal in an article for Foreign Policy.

Of course, I do know pretend to be an expert on the subject of Afghan culture but I find it hard to believe it can be boiled down to such a simple cause.

Mashal argues young men in the still deeply traditionally Afghanistan are becoming sexually frustrated by the lack of marriage opportunities in a country where bride prices remain high despite low levels of employment. Many men are being forced to seek employment as labourers in Iran to raise the money demanded by women’s families and are thus (supposedly) remaining virgins for longer.

The build up of this frustration is supposedly being exploited by the Taliban who offer the best wages in the area, especially in Helmand, and the promise of 72 virgins waiting for them in paradise.

While I have to concede Mashal probably knows more about the specifics of the region (and being a man) than I do, I have to question if it can really be that simple. To boil down all male frustrations in a situation as complex as Afghanistan seems unnecessarily reductive.

Instead the picture, as always, is more complex.

Some blame must be held at the feet of the NATO occupation itself. Whilst America and their allies have been welcome in the past by the metropolitan elites of Kabul, after 11 and a half long years of occupation their patience is wearing thin.

The invading forces promised democracy, prosperity and peace they are struggling to deliver on that promise. Afghanistan is at the bottom of Transparency International’s list of corruption states alongside North Korea and Somalia. Hamid Karzai is supported by the NATO alliance not because he is a paragon of democratic virtue, but because he is not the Taliban. There are still questioning lingering over the the Afghan government’s legitimacy as well as the undue influence of Karzai’s family which has grown mysteriously wealthy since he took office.

Karzai’s own brother has been linked to the lucrative opium trade rampant in the country which is said to provide the Taliban with most of their funds.

As much as I am loathed to use historical examples as an absolute guide to the future of the country, I have to draw some parallels with America past interventions in the 20th century. The support of the Batista regime in Cuba, despite local opposition made it easier for Fidel Castro to swoop in as the America’s feared.

So a similar fate could await Afghanistan when the troops pull out. With even Karzai himself blaming the corruption woes of the country on its foreign occupiers it is easy to see how dissatisfaction can turn into extremism.

Like the young in the UK, Afghan young people were promised prosperity. However, unlike the young in the UK, they are living in an extreme and dangerous environment. After growing up amidst bloodshed and warfare a whole generation of young men and women thought they would start to see the beginning of a new order which has been instead mired in the old ways of corrupt leaders, blind occupiers and frustrated local communities.

For young (and old) women, domestic violence, rape and honour killings are still commonplace. Women were forced to accept a law passed in 2009 that banned them leaving the house in certain circumstances without the consent of their husbands. While the more urban educated classes may welcome women’s emancipation, the rural attitudes towards women suggest the country still has a long way to go.

For young men, often there only one choice; become a labourer or become a ‘freedom fighter’. With great wealth and power cut off by the dominance of a corrupted elite, the windows that appeared to open in 2001 have snapped shut in their faces. Many are too young to really remember what life was like under the Taliban and many are probably feeling like the unknown foreign devil is convenient scapegoat for all their problems.

Instead of sexual frustration, maybe the real reason for so many young men joining the Taliban is frustration itself. Sex, eternal glory and wealth all play their part in a bigger picture of dissatisfaction and disenchantment with the status quo. Maybe joining the Taliban for many young men in Afghanistan is an act of defiance? Instead of wanting 72 virgins, maybe this just want someone to sit up and take notice?

While you were watching the Olympics…

The Iconic Image of the Event: Celebrating brilliance is one thing, forgetting the rest of the world is a mistake. © The Guardian

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m all for celebrating British achievement and the fact that the Olympics weren’t the fiasco everyone was expecting them to be. The Olympics have been here, there and everywhere these past two weeks as people from all over the country have taken leave of their prejudices, their differences (and sometimes their senses) to come together and stick to their televisions for up to eight hours a day.

However in all this ‘We are #teamGB’ we have seemed to forget that a real world exists outside the shiny, happy wall to wall coverage of attractive, athletic types winning Gold medals.

For instance, a twelve year old girl, Tia Sharp, disappeared from her home in Croydon last Friday and her body was discovered the following week in her grandmother’s house. Her grandmother and two men have been arrested on suspicion of her murder.

On a national level, David Cameron has abandoned plans to reform the House of the Lords and pave way for the major reform promise of all three major parties at the last election out of fear for back bench rebellion angering his coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats into threatening the stability of the coalition by rebelling over boundary reform.

Across the pond, Republican presumptive nominee Mitt Romney announced his running mate for the American Presidential election in November, a pro-life, economic liberal called Paul Ryan who has been branded as an ‘extremist ideologue’ by the Obama camp with a budget plan that supposedly only benefits billionaires. Romney also used the opportunity to add another gaffe to his collection by calling Ryan the ‘future President of the United States’.

In other world news, Syrian rebels have been promised an increase in ‘non-lethal’ aid by British foreign secretary William Hague despite being accused of human rights abuses by Human Rights Watch as the civil war moves into the second city, Aleppo.

In another part of the world recently touched by the Arab Spring, Egypt’s President Mohammed Mursi has ordered the retirement of the country’s powerful head of the armed forces, Field Marshal Mohamad Hussein Tantawi. This has widely been seen as a strike against the narrow limits imposed by the Generals during the election. He has also announced a constitutional declaration to curb Presidential power has been shelved.

Finally, there was a massive earthquake in the north west of Iran and about 250 people have died with over 2000 people being injured and homes and villages flatten. The relief effort is now on to get people into adequate shelter before the onset of winter. Casualty figures are expected to rise as hospitals are struggling to cope with the influx of patients.

Iranians mourn over the covered bodies of loved ones in the village Baje-Baj, near the town of Varzaqan, © ATTA KENARE/AFP/GettyImages/Sky News

I’m not saying the Olympics isn’t important. I am not saying I wasn’t cheering on Mo Farah like everyone else but I can’t say it made me any prouder to be British (or from Yorkshire). There are individuals who have succeeded and I will cheer them on but I don’t feel they really represent me; the girl who disliked sport at school and loathed her self-aggrandising PE teachers even more. I was however proud to be an alumi of the University of Birmingham when Usain Bolt and Yohan Blake (possibly my two favourite athletes ever) praised ‘Birmingham People’ for doing such a good job hosting them before the games started because of my personal attachment to the place and the people in it.

The overwrought and overstated emotion attached to these games is misplaced. A video montage detailing Tom Daley rise to promience ahead of the diving final yesterday treated him like he was poised to pull a sword out of a stone, not get a bronze in the diving. Why is this necessary? Ultimately all sport is just a game and it will be played over and over again. It makes the individuals money and it makes many others happy but it doesn’t change the world and it certainly won’t change London.

Yes its great that this country has so many talented young people, yes its great that they can excel, but that doesn’t make the other citizens any less obese, any richer and it certainly doesn’t make Britain more ‘great’. We are still a fading world power that is so riven with internal division that we can’t get the other 90% of young people who weren’t blessed with athletic ability out of the dole queue.

The Olympics won’t change us. We may be united on Twitter and in front of the television now but how long will this last? I give it until Wednesday until we’re all bickering again. What has the Olympic said about us? We can make the trains run (sort of) on time for two weeks of the year? Some of us run fast?

I’m not saying the Olympics shouldn’t be on television, I’m not saying it shouldn’t be celebrated. However ultimately its just a sporting tournament that happens every four years and given London has hosted it more often than any other city on Earth and is full of tourists all year round anyway I think its probably time the Tube got a rest.

We can dangle the gold medals in front of faces to distract ourselves all we like but the real world isn’t going away. Young girls are still getting murdered, Middle Eastern dictators are still waging war on their own country and their citizens are committing atrocities in retaliation. Natural disasters  will still kill more innocent people .

By all means, celebrate tonight and go back to hating each other in the morning. I have no problem with the Olympics being front page news, it just shouldn’t be the only news. I know its a miserable thing to say but the real world isn’t going away just because we want it too.

North Korea and the Art of Political Posturing

The Cult of the Leader: The Global Leadership Should Stop Inflaming North Korean Ideology © The Daily Telegraph (AU)

To many foreign observers, North Korea is an odd place. With the succession of odd, little dictators, its dependence on China for aid and its determination to celebrate both its victories and its failures it always seems like one big Political House of Cards where one gust of reality will knock it down. Its attempt and subsequent failure to launch a rocket this week was still celebrated as a great triumph in the capital Pyongyang.

Now this is partly because of the propaganda inbuilt into North Korean society where the glorification of its two former leaders, father and son Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il is more important than feeding its people but also because it plays into its ‘us versus the capitalist’ rhetoric.

It has been studied apprhensively by the Western media to see how the third ruler of the ‘world’s only communist monarchy’ is coping since his father’s death in December and speculated over whether he can maintain the facade of progress while his country slides further and further away from the prosperity of the rest of the world.

The theatrics of the past week suggest that these hypotheses were premature as the Korean propaganda machine rumbles on. With a failed rocket launch and the unveiling of two gigantic statues of the two previous Kims in Pyongyang the ruling class and the masses that appear to follow them celebrated their actions as a massive success.

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Why Its Still Not ‘OK’ To Be A Girl

New Frontier, Old Problems: An Uncertain Future For Women's Rights in Afghanistan, Courtesy of National Geographic

Whenever Britain reaches a morbid anniversary of our time in Afghanistan or a new death milestone as more and more troops are thrown on the battlefield with armour little more advanced than the average London riot shield, politicians and commentators emphatically insist we are there ‘for the women’.

Despite the rather dubious provenance of this justification, as at the time is was supposedly an attempt to rout out Al-Qaeda after the 9/11 attacks, the rhetoric states it has brought about nothing but improvement in the lives of Afghan women as Westernised values seep into the country.

However, whatever American and British propaganda may tell you, Afghanistan is still not the best place to be a girl.

The continuing guerilla presence of the Taliban is normally what captures international focus on women’s rights as their frequent attacks on girl students and their schools capture the world’s attention. The negotiations between NATO forces and the Taliban received intense scrutiny from human rights organisation Amnesty International at the end of 2011 with their campaign to ensure women’s rights were not used as a bargaining chip in the peace talks. The Taliban have now suspend negotiations with the USA because of their ‘ever changing position’ but the continuing focus on the seemingly unending struggle with the Taliban neglects the serious challenges women face in mainstream Afghan society.

Over the past eleven years there have been huge strides in not just women’s, but human rights generally in Afghanistan. With discrimination legislation, access to education and healthcare and the beginnings of a (sort of) democratic system it appears to Western observers that on the surface their mission has been successful in creating a lasting legacy of freedom in the country. Men and women are declared equal under the Afghan constitution and there is a quota of a quarter of all seats in government reserved for women which was exceeded in the elections of 2005 and 2010.

Nevertheless, the cultural war is still far from over. Afghanistan still remains divided along tribal lines, rife with corruption and before the arrival of the Taliban in the late nineties; suffered years of civil war, invasion by Russia and the rule of tribal kings. Its currently ranked 150th in the world for press freedom , 1.4 on the report published by Transparency International in 2010 where 10 is most clean and 0 is most corrupt and 181th for maternal mortality(out of 181).

What people often forget is that although the extremes of the Taliban were rejected by mainstream Afghan society a large part of its attitudes to women were almost as repressive as the group’s and some have even become more radicalised by the speed of Western attempts at change.
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A Review of the Year: Asia In 2011



The earth seemed to spin doubly fast in 2011 and the rate of news seemed to be so rapid and unrelenting we even missed silly season and such delights as Yvonne the runaway cow and the moose that got in a drink driving snafu because of the real important news that would not stop happening. 2011 also saw the birth of this blog. With all these new and exciting things happening it is easy to get a headrush so I have taken it upon myself and this blog to condense the news of 2011 to around six-eight key news stories from each region that I believe have been the most definitive of the year in a series of blog posts over the next few days.

Asia in 2011

China: The leader of the region, China supposedly became committed to the ‘soft power’ economic model in the early part of the last decade to take over the world with their cheap manufacturing and seemingly inexhaustible manpower. With the Olympics in Beijing in 2008, the Chinese authorities even temporarily loosened up some of their restrictions on many internet sites and it started to seem like China might be finally, fully welcomed back into the boson of international relations if albeit in an totilatarian sort of way. However, ever since the beginning of the Arab Spring in late December, early January China has feared its own ‘Jasmine Revolution’ leading to its crackdown on noted dissidents for such heinous crimes such as ‘tax evasion’ and ‘fraud’. Their most noted victim, artist Ai WeiWei emerged from captivity after 3 months detention back in June as the result of an international campaign for his release. However, many unknown dissidents may have faced a worse fate because they did not have the international community to come to their rescue. Recently another dissident, Ni Yulan was alleged crippled under torture and is today standing trial.

Japan: To use a technical term, Japan has had a clusterfuck of a year. First there was an earthquake, then there was a tsunami, then there was the nuclear panic over Fukushima. Safe to say, that this year everything that could go wrong did go wrong for the Japanese. After a disaster movie style year the task has been reconstruction and recovery since the earthquake in March that killed over 15,000 people. With political fighting and a seemingly insurmountable level of mess and misery to clear up, the Japanese have so far handed this crisis with an extraordinary level of dignity and courage. Time will tell, however, if it gets back to it’s for ‘tiger economy’ glory.

Thailand: The general election in July supposedly ushered in a new political chapter as the military formally gave up power to an elected government since their coup d’etat against populist leader, Thaksin Shinawatra in 2005. His sister, Yingluck Shinawatra won a resounding victory for the countries Red Shirts, populist supporters of greater democracy but in the spirit of reconciliation she choose to rule in coalition with the Yellow Shirts, pro-monarchists. Despite the King’s, who still has an enormous influence over Thai politics, failing health the country political system seems to be in rudimentary health. However, since the election there have been a series of devastating floods across Thailand that have killed over 600 people and declared by the World Bank as the fourth costliest disaster in human history.

Burma: After Aung San Suu Kyi’s release from house arrest in late 2010, she has begun to tour throughout Burma during 2011 as she becomes part of the domestic political structure once more. As part of a continued relaxation of Burmese rule, in October thousands of political prisoners were released at Aung San’s request. Additionally, according to the Bangkok Post, there is renewed business interest in Burma as a new centre of development. However, the slight reduction on mainstream censorship has not been met with a new toleration for the rebellious ethnic minority Karen people on the border with Thailand who are campaigning for greater political autonomy.

India: After the year Indian Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh has had many in his position would give up. A year of corruption scandals was kicked off by the minister supposedly investigating corruption during the Commonwealth Games in 2010 was arrested on corruption charges himself. After another series of scandals, popular social activist, Anna Hazare declared a public fast in April until an anti-corruption bill was passed. This promoted a massive internet campaign that soon spread to the streets in a movement that BBC called ‘India’s Arab Spring’. It got through the lower house this month but the upper house was adjourned today rather than casting its vote.

Pakistan: In an example of religious extremism that showed just how fanatic elements of Pakistani society have become, Punjab Governor Salmaan Taseer was gunned down by his bodyguard in January for supporting a repeal of Pakistan’s blasphemy law. Instead of being reviled for the murder of a public figure, Malik Mumtaz Qadri was hero-worshipped by some and had rose petals thrown over as he went into for his preliminary hearing. Religious clerics also called for a boycott of Taseer’s funeral because of his campaign for a mercy plea for Asia Bibi, a Christian Pakistani woman accused of blasphemy and sentenced to death. On the other hand, there were protests on the streets of the Punjab region where he was popular against his death. In August Taseer’s son Shahbaz Taseer was kidnapped by an unidentified gunman. He was last reported to be near the Pak-Afghan border in October but his exact whereabouts are still unknown.

North Korea: After suffering from failing health, disguised from his people, for a number of years, ‘Dear Leader’ and ‘Amazing Politian’ Kim Jong Il finally gave up the ghost and made way for the ascension of his untested youngest son, Kim Jong Un. With the two-day official mourning at an end for the man who claims to have invented a food that sounds suspiciously like a hamburger the country makes way for a ‘glorious future’ under there new ‘Glorious Leader’. Ahem.

‘The Kim is Dead…Long Live the Kim’…

…As the newly late Christopher Hitchens said of the ascension of the also newly late Kim Jong-Il to his father’s premiership in 1994.*

It seems oddly fitting that they died within days of each other.

The death of the most famous modern example of ‘short man complex’, Kim Jong Il, this Saturday instigates another merry-go round of mourning as North Korea prepares for the arrival of more of the same in the shape of his son, Kim Jong Un in much the same way as his father took over power from his grandfather.

The dramatic scenes of public mourning may seem odd to the cynical Western observer who is unlikely to notice one of their leaders passing or only wish to dance on their grave but they are not immune to a cult of personality.

What is it about one person that can inspire such rapturous devotion? Especially in a country like North Korea: regarded as the world’s most dangerous ‘rogue state’ where the capital city, Pyongyang, only has light at night if there are foreign journalists in town and the people regularly starved as the elites indulge their taste for cigars and cognac.
Continue reading ‘The Kim is Dead…Long Live the Kim’…