Newsnotes 2012 11

Notes On The News

by Gwydion M Williams

War Memories [Falsifying the causes of World War One]

Pussy Riot and the Boat Race saboteur

Who put the ‘vile’ in Savile? [Jimmy Savile]

US Republicans Don’t ‘Reap the Whirlwind’

Crazy Democracy [Obama Re-Elected]

Star Wars: a New Look at Luke [Star Wars Seven]

Red Flag, Red Sorghum

China Expects Another Successful Decade

Goodbye, Han Suyin [and also Prince Sihanouk of Cambodia]


War Memories [Falsifying the causes of World War One]

When World War One was decided upon, every single participating power had a parliament that could have objected and in fact approved the war. Calling it a ‘war for democracy’ is bullshit: parliamentary democracy was developing nicely in Europe and also in Japan and the Ottoman Empire, the main independent powers. In Latin America it was a mess, and it was on the verge of failing in China, with a warlord seeking to become Emperor with Western support. But without the First World War, this growth in parliamentary democracy might have continued without all of the death and suffering that actually happened.

Not all of those parliaments matched modern democratic standards, of course. British historians make a lot about the German Parliament not having the same control over ministers that Westminster had. There was also unequal voting in Prussia, with the rich having votes that counted for more. But everywhere was imperfect. Most of the warring powers controlled huge non-white populations with no intention of ever letting them be equal.

For the British Empire, the Imperial Parliament was elected by about 60% of adult males living in the British Isles. Colonies with large numbers of white settlers had their own parliaments, which opted for the war and which later decided that conscription would not apply to them when it did in Britain. The non-white majority were conscripted as needed and had no say at all. Non-whites treated as raw material, both in the USA and British Empire. Since there weren’t many of them in the British Isles they might have a vote, if they were well-off. But there were strict rules that British officers must be “of the white race”.

Starting a war in August 1914 was power-politics, the rivalry of gigantic empires that controlled most of the world. You could argue about whose power-politics was worst, but everyone had a sensible hope for winning the war at acceptable cost.

The crime was continuing the war into 1915, when it was clear there would be no easy victory. A crime repeated in 1916, 1917 and 1918, with the starvation of Germany continued into 1919 to force acceptance of the grossly unfair terms of the Treaty of Versailles.

It was a crime committed the rulers of the British Empire, though the USA was happy to step in and save Britain from defeat. Ordinary Britons went along with it, some buying the argument about the menace of Germany as a trade rival, others genuinely believing that Germany might invade Britain if not stopped in France and Belgium. But note that those ordinary Britons were had a vote were intentionally disempowered by a ruling class that was still in control and still viewed as the only people fit to govern.


Pussy Riot and the Boat Race saboteur

A man who swam into the path of the Oxford-Cambridge Boat Race gets six months in prison: no one much minds. Pop Group “Pussy Riot” get two years for singing obscene songs in an Orthodox Christian cathedral, and most of the British media call it tyranny.

Both are examples of people who want to wreck the lives of others if they don’t get what they want. Russia overwhelmingly close Putin. The boat race protest was against austerity, but a majority of Britons keep on voting for parties that accept austerity.

I also can’t help wondering what would be said if a British punk band were to sing an obscenity-laced song in Westminster Abbey as a protest against climate change. Would that be treated gently, or would it be seen as different if it is your own sacred places?

If you’ve got democratic norms that give you the possibility of changing the society, it is best to stick to them. It’s a pretty good rule of history that when anarchic protest does seriously disrupt a society, the outcome is much more authoritarian and ruthless that whatever regime the protestors were originally objecting to.


Who put the ‘vile’ in Savile? [Jimmy Savile]

It’s fairly normal for police to protect the powerful. Bad communication may explain how little-known individuals who have left traces in separate police files stay free, the data is never put together. If Joe Soap left low-level traces with several different police forces, none of them had any strong reason to spend scarce resources checking Joe Soap, who might anyway get confused with a different and entirely innocent Joe Soap.

It is a different matter when a police detective is faced with allegations about a famous individual. The obvious next step would be to ask the other regional police forces if they had anything similar about this famous individual. One accuser may be malicious or a crank: three or four who don’t know each other but give the same story is enough for a conviction. So why didn’t this happen?

“At least three forces – Surrey, Sussex and Jersey – are known to have been aware of allegations against Savile, but the true number is believed to be as high as seven.”[1]

Very odd. The issue was made public by the media, and only once Savile was dead and it became safe to voice suspicions without solid proof.

British libel laws must take part of the blame. They mean that you can be punished severely for saying something that you can demonstrate to be probably true. To successfully defend against a libel action, the accusation or innuendo has to be proven to the degree necessary for a criminal conviction. This was why the late camp singer Liberace got substantial damages from the Daily Mirror for an article which did everything it could to imply the man was homosexual without actually saying so. You might say that the Mirror breached an unofficial understanding that people’s private lives would be respected so long as they were discrete. That’s acceptable nowadays for homosexuality, which was legalised in the 1960s. It was briefly viewed as possible for underage sex, but the society decided massively against this. So why did Savile get away with it?

Pop keeps lots of ordinary people docile and hoping for individual success without much concern for other people like them. Aspiring musicians hope to rise from the crowd, not see the crowd rise as a united whole. This is part of a much wider trend that I’d call the “Coolheart Revolution”, a spread of ‘cool’ attitudes that favoured selfish personal developments and denied that anything could or should be done about wider social evils. “Give me liberty, sex, drugs and lots of money” would be a fitting slogan.

A weakness in the “Coolheart Revolution” is that only the first two can be sensibly met for everyone who wants them. Drugs destroy an alarming percentage of those who dabble in them, a far higher percentage than the number of alcohol users who become alcoholic. (Alcohol use is also more common, so more die of it, but not as many as might die if drugs were ever decriminalised.)

Sexual liberation – what used to be called Free Love – has proved feasible, though it has changed family structures. But it can become destructive when the under-age get drawn into it. The lucky ones may make a lot of money selling sex appeal without actual sex: vastly more than anything else might do at that age. But even they face problems, as a recent account by Kate Moss has revealed.[2] She started modelling at 14, but was fortunate enough to have retained her attractiveness and career after she’d grown up. That can’t be typical

This “Coolheart Revolution” is what the radicalism of the 1960s was transmuted into, after the failure to create an improved version of socialism in the 1970s. It proved highly compatible with Thatcherism.

It was also much better than losing completely and seeing 1950s values return, which was essentially what happened in the Soviet bloc. But it’s still useful to point out the connections.


US Republicans Don’t ‘Reap the Whirlwind’

Sow the wind, reap the whirlwind. But in a society dominated by populist values, rich people in control of most of the media can stop the public noticing.

Twenty years ago, people were warning that a general trend to a warmer world would cause the polar ice cap to melt, with unguessable consequences. It was also known that a general trend to a warmer world would not be a simple uniform rise in temperature everywhere. Every climate model I’ve seen predicts that some areas will actually cool, even as others warm up. Rainfall too was expected to vary.

What was not expected was the speed with which arctic ice would start melting. Nor could anyone be sure about the effect this would have on the Jet Stream.

There are actually several Jet Streams, but the one that counts is the Polar Jet Stream. It controls the flow of weather systems in Europe and the USA. Sometimes it gets locked in an unusual pattern and the flow stops. It happened this summer, giving the USA unusual dryness and heat, while the British summer was unusually wet. It can also produce very cold winters, or very mild ones. This pattern of unpredictable extremes is likely to get worse.

Note also that unpredictable extremes may average out to something like the old norm. One year is hideously hot and dry, the next is cold and wet with unprecedented flooding. Lump them together and it might seem “normal”. That’s the basis for the Daily Mail saying it’s not too serious, since “from the beginning of 1997 until August 2012, there was no discernible rise in aggregate global temperatures”.[3] Average warming matters much less than wild weather, and wild weather has definitely increased as the polar ice-cap melts.

What the Jet Stream does to hurricanes is uncertain: they are complex and fickle. The south of the USA gets regularly battered by hurricanes: the East Coast mostly escapes. When Climate Change was being discussed 20 and 30 years ago, it was mentioned that bigger hurricanes and different hurricanes were a possibility. It was also possible we’d get lucky and the new climate would suppress them.

We weren’t lucky: rather, the USA has been unlucky. There’s little doubt the pattern has changed. The South Atlantic never used to have hurricanes – mostly called cyclones in that part of the world. Before weather satellites in the 1970s, there is little reliable information – though where hurricanes / cyclones / typhoons were common, they had been known about for centuries. In the South Atlantic, there was a cyclone classed as Subtropical Cyclone in 1974, another in 1991. And then seven since 2004, including Cyclone Catarina which reached hurricane strength.[4]

After a summer of extraordinary heat and drought, the USA has now had a hurricane hitting hard where they’re not expected. It’s way outside previous norms, and also damages the USA’s weak infrastructure, neglected after decades of tax-cutting and privatisation. So how do the US voters react? Nearly half of them decide it’s “just weather” and that a tax-avoiding man who’s grown rich by abolishing the jobs of the working mainstream and letting them re-appear in China is the best man to get the USA out of its current crisis. And it seems that Obama, while accepting climate change, prefers to keep it as a minor issue.[5]

There is a huge chunk of US society that listened to Ronald Reagan in the 1980s and hangs onto his message in the face of an accumulation of “off-message facts”. This is often true of a declining society, it hangs on to its core beliefs and refuses to see them as a probable cause of the problem. Imperial Spain reacted to each setback with a strengthening of the rigid Counter-Reformation Catholicism that had weakened them. The British Empire in its weakened condition after the First World War chose to return to the Gold Standard at the pre-war rate, with huge damage to the economy.

Obama promised change without being very specific. He’s not in fact managed to be much different from Bush Junior, any more than Clinton was much of a break from Bush Senior. But he has been more attractive to the rest of the world, while Romney has already offended Britain with stupid remarks about troubles in the run-up to the Olympic. A Republican in the White House backed by Tea Party extremists would have helped the whole trend for Europe to move away from the US alliance. But he didn’t lose by much, and Republicans still control the House of Representatives, allowing them to carry on stopping legislation they don’t like.


Crazy Democracy [Obama Re-Elected]

Obama has the distinction of being the first visibly non-white individual to be the ruler of a majority-white state. Andrew Jackson had some Native American ancestry, but not much and this was acceptable. Polls indicate that US voters are suspicious of people of East Asian ancestry, suspecting that they might have different cultural values. Although Native Americans are racially very close, they are not seen as culturally distinct, just fellow-citizens with a touch of the exotic.

It is also notable that the entire Afro-American community failed to produce an electable candidate for national office, and not many in constituencies where there is a white majority. Obama with a white hippy mother and a Kenyan father counts as an anomaly.

Note also that Obama is the first globally, not just in the USA. New Zealand has come close to electing Maori or people of part-Maori ancestry, as close as Deputy Prime Minister, but not yet.[6] Peru has a Native-American majority, but it was a breakthrough when Alberto Fujimori was elected in 1990, even though his ancestry was Japanese.

Obama is now back for another four years. He got just over half of the vote and won most of the crucial “swing states” that Romney had to win. He seems to have done well among the old and the white, but that’s no longer enough to win.

The election shows the decline of US Protestantism. It featured a Mormon and two Roman Catholics on the two rival ‘tickets’. Obama himself converted to Protestantism from a non-religious background. Converted to the Trinity United Church of Christ, a predominantly African-American church which he has now distanced himself from after publicity about some radical statements by its pastor.

Protestantism began as an attempt to return to an older purer Christianity, a Christianity based on the Bible. Only it turned out that the Bible says many different things. Henry 8th took very seriously some verses against marrying your brother’s widow, but elsewhere this is commanded as a religious duty. And the whole “Sabbath” tradition began within Catholicism, people taking Jewish rules for Saturday[7] and applying them to the Roman-pagan rest-day of Sunday, originally viewed as the first day of the week. Catholicism allowed a mix of holiday and worship: Puritans tried to purify it without facing up to the original confusion.

With everything shaky, many Protestants fell into the ‘Plutophile Heresy’, viewing worldly wealth as a sign of Divine Favour. This is flatly against the whole New Testament tradition: the Old Testament is more mixed and a reader not committed to seeing it as the Word of God would conclude that different books say wildly different things. Since this was not open to devout Protestants, they easily yielded to the temptation to praise the rich. ‘Blessed are the praise-singers, for they shall receive money’, you might say. This applied in particular to the non-established sects, which were dependent on individual donations. A small number of rich individuals could and did have disproportionate influence, and switch congregations or sects if the Minister preached the wrong message.

This was much more true in the USA than Britain, where the Church of England was reasonably prosperous and not so dependent. In England and Wales, at least, what was originally a very strong Nonconformist movement faded to insignificance in the course of the 20th century. Meantime the Church of England has become almost infinitely flexible to the demands of secular society, but still preaches a limited social message. Most Christians in Britain are Liberal-Left, while the intense religiousness of Protestants in the USA has almost entirely yielded to the ‘Plutophile Heresy’ and delivers poor and middle-income voters to a Republican Party that serves the rich.

The rich in the USA are also able to have a vast influence through campaign funds, which are gigantic and can shepherd large numbers of rather thoughtless voters towards whichever candidate spends the most money. You can’t actually buy an election, some rich candidates have spent a lot and failed. But you can buy a lot of bias. Obama has commented on this but has done nothing about it. He might have taken a bold stand, abandoning any hope of re-election but possibly changing politics in the same way as Barry Goldwater changed politics despite losing decisively to Johnson. As things are, he has made little difference in his first term and is unlikely to any better now.

An oddity of the US election is that the Presidential vote chooses an Electoral College. It was assumed by the Founding Fathers that ordinary voters could not sensibly choose an official as remote as the President of a diversity of separate States. But this was quickly subverted by candidates pledged to a particular individual. This could have produced a deadlock, two candidates with exactly the same number of pledged electors. This would be broken by the House of Representatives (Republican) choosing the President from the first three candidates, while the Senate (Democrat) chooses the Vice-President. It might have meant Romney being elected with Obama’s Vice-President, creating a vast incentive for assassins to get one or the other. (Vice Presidents have no more power than the President allows them, but are also automatic successors if the President dies in office.)

Obama won by a narrow margin despite keeping the USA viable during a massive crisis caused by speculation. He should have hammered on that Clinton fixed the deficit and Bush Junior re-created it. But Democrats also favour a basic “Feed the Rich” policy, so it would have been seen as too radical to make that a big issue.

Yet for Republicans, social liberalism that is still behind the European norm is wickedness. The milder version of “Feed the Rich” favoured by the Democrats is wickedness. This view lets them feel moral in obstructing the government wherever possible, rather than making a compromise in a way that was once normal. An article appearing in The Guardian just before voting began said:

“One of Clinton’s national security advisers, Richard Feinberg, observed: ‘If a society fundamentally disagrees on fundamental issues – the nature of property and what constitutes a legitimate political system – democracy can’t handle it.’ At the time, his words were a lecture to Latin American nations. Now they sound like a reproach to his own countrymen.”[8]

Which is true enough, assuming you go along with the modern habit of saying “democracy” when you actually mean “multi-party parliamentary democracy”. And it would apply even more strongly to countries where there is no strong tradition of accepting the result of an election as final. Countries that take it for granted that the Opposition opposes within sensible limits and may be the next government. Trying to impose this in Black Africa or on places like Iraq was never likely to work.


Star Wars: a New Look at Luke [Star Wars Seven]

I’m not delighted with the Disney Corporation buying up Lucasfilm, but at least now we may get some more live-action movies. (There have been cartoons, but one look convinced me not to bother.)

Star Wars is the main asset. I doubt that Indiana Jones would work without Harrison Ford: the series about his younger days with different actors had some interesting bits of history but wasn’t that great. Both the world of Willow and that of Labyrinth have possibilities. I sincerely hope we’ve seen the last of Howard the Duck.

What’s promised is the final three episodes of the main Star Wars story, which George Lucas variously talked about, saying contradictory things.[9] There are a whole swarm of authorised novels that take the story further, with Luke Skywalker becoming a mature Jedi Master. Timothy Zhan’s “Thrawn” trilogy would make a decent set of films, but would need new actors, since Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher and Harrison Ford are much too old for the time of those books. There has also been talk of a new story in which their film-ages match their real ages, but Mark Hamill hasn’t aged well and would be unconvincing.

Or they could ignore all of the books: treat it as an ‘Alternate Universe’ and re-boot the plot with new actors, as was done very successfully for Star Trek: Enterprise. Do something drastic and original, like Vader / Anakin appear to Luke as a force ghost and say “Luke, you are not my only son”. So you could have more family dramas amidst the background of an Empire that isn’t likely to collapse all at once.

Of course they’ll probably do something quite different. They usually do.

[It is confirmed that the ‘Extended Universe’ will be ignored. The trailers confirm that they have entirely re-thought events after Vader’s death. Trailers do indicate a film which recreates the original magic, at least for me. Of course hard-core fans will hate it, always preferring their own vision.]


Red Flag, Red Sorghum

Is Europe getting reconciled to China becoming the world’s Number Two without changing much? The award of this year’s Nobel Peace Prize [Nobel Prize for Literature] to author Mo Yan may mean that. He makes criticism of current problems, but within the limits laid down by the party leadership.

No one knows why any of the prizes get awarded, the process is secret. But Mo Yan has a good international reputation. The film version of his novel Red Sorghum won first prize in the Golden Bear Awards at the Berlin Film Festival in 1988. His novels have been translated into several languages and been popular in many countries, which is a criterion for this global prize. A judge might validly vote for him while believing there were other Chinese writers who were better, if it were the case that those writers were little known outside of China.

The Chinese Dissident movement protested, of course. It has turned out to be a remarkably ineffective dissident movement, having little substance apart from Western support. That support continues for now, at least in Britain. The BBC keeps on mentioning income inequality in China, much more often than other countries. It also fails to mention that in terms of wealth, China is much less unequal than the norm. Most of the new wealth has been made in fast-moving businesses, generally businesses producing something useful.

The dissidents objected to the award to a fellow-countryman: they have to go on playing the West’s game or become wholly marginal. Thus:

“Dissident artist Ai Weiwei spoke out against him [Mo Yan], calling him someone who ‘will always stand on the side of power’.”[10]

Which is true enough: he chooses to take a moderate line with the powerful Communist Party that has raised China from the chaos, weakness and poverty it was suffering in 1949. Ai Weiwei chooses to stand with another sort of power, the vast, unfriendly and bungling power of the USA, still closely supported by the UK and more loosely by the rest of Europe. No doubt he believes that those powers mean well for his people, mean better than home-grown leaders. I doubt he has looked closely at the mess in Iraq.

A continuation of the current peaceful rise of India and China will in due course make China the Number One power, with India Number Two and the USA reduced to Number Three. If you think that the USA would be happy to allow it so long as human rights and democracy are respected, then you are a complete fool when it comes to politics.

[I originally put down the wrong prize, even though I knew perfectly well which one he had won. But both have been significant in Chinese politics.]


China Expects Another Successful Decade

If a country aligned with the West had quadrupled its economy since 2002 and extended basic welfare to a majority of the population, I’m sure the British media would be saying “how wonderful” and be keen that this winning formula be continues. No one demands that a football manager be fired when his team wins nine games in a row. But since it’s an achievement by China, the main threat to the global Anglo hegemony, excuses are found to bitch and to tell the Chinese they urgently need to abandon their system and copy the West more closely.

The Economist – heirs to the people who successfully urged the British ruling class to let the Irish starve during the Irish Potato Famine of the 1840s – are the moderate voice of globalisation. Like many British institutions, they switched to the rising USA when the British Empire was clearly ruined. And this particular smooth-talking well-informed and frequently witty magazine can sound very plausible. Plausible until you notice that the rise to influence of their magazine and a broader class it represented coincides quite nicely with the start of the British Empire’s long decline as the dominant world power.

The 1840s was the peak of Britain’s role as ‘Workshop of the World’. If you see the Industrial Revolution as the spreading by capitalist methods of new technologies based on science, then you’d not expect British dominance to last long. Other European nations were just as familiar with capitalist methods, had often invented basic ideas which the British later picked up. Modern science emerged first as a network of individuals communicating mostly in Latin, with Italians and Germans playing the biggest role. Italian science was silenced by the Counter-Reformation, but French and German science were at least as strong, maybe stronger, and there was well-developed science of many of the smaller nations of Europe. As this was translated into modern industry, following Britain’s example, Britain’s advantage was under threat. How was it to be preserved?

The answer given by The Economist and many others was Free Trade. Since this failed in fact to save the British Empire, already weakening before the drastic losses and nominal victory of the First World War, it might seem rational to say that it was the wrong answer. That the rival idea of a protectionist Empire co-existing with other equally protectionist world blocks would have better served the interests of Imperial Britain. But that’s not the view that by The Economist takes. It stands proudly on its record, including the neglect of the Irish, as was set out in its official history.[11]

Letting millions of Irish starve or emigrate during the 1840s wasn’t just immoral, it was foolish. It almost certainly shortened the lifetime of the Empire, since the upsurge of Irish Republicanism during and after World War One was a major setback. Being mean-minded in the 1840s was a short-term saving that greatly reduced the chances of integrating the Irish as loyal servants on the second tier of the vast hierarchy of the British Empire. Enough of them were willing to accept such a role even after the famine, willing to be unofficially inferior to English, Welsh and Scots so long as they were confirmed as superior to other Europeans and a vast non-white mass who were the bulk of the Empire. But the famine was never forgotten. It was often identified as “the starvation”, because it was only potatoes that had failed. Lots of other crops were grown, but the government followed Free Trade rules and would not interfere with existing commercial contracts.

To judge the usefulness of what The Economist advises now, consider the long results of past advice. Looking at the prospects for another 10-year hand-over of power in China – still not officially announced as I write[12], they say:

“A recurring theme of commentary by both the ‘left’ (meaning, in China, those who yearn for more old-style communism) and the ‘right’ (as economic and political reformers are often termed) is that dangers are growing at an alarming rate. Leftists worry that the party will implode, like its counterparts in the former Soviet Union and eastern Europe, because it has embraced capitalism too wholeheartedly and forgotten its professed mission to serve the people. Rightists worry that China’s economic reforms have not gone nearly far enough and that political liberalisation is needed to prevent an explosion of public resentment. Both sides agree there is a lot of this, over issues ranging from corruption to a huge and conspicuous gap between rich and poor.”[13]

Of course it wasn’t just the Soviet Communist Party who suffered when first Gorbachev and then Yeltsin ’embraced capitalism too wholeheartedly’. The economy shrank, the death rate shot up and a lot of the wealth of the nation passed to people who were hybrids of speculator and gangster. Russia was relatively lucky in that Yeltsin eventually realised his error and put in Putin, who stopped the rot. But Russia has slid well down the world rankings, having been clear Number Two from 1945 to 1989. Almost a dream come true for the Anglosphere, except that they proved massively incompetent when it came to using this new-found hegemony. The West made no solid gains apart from Eastern Europe (which would be better called Middle-Europe). Of course it takes no particular political skills to persuade Poles to hate Russians, and most of the other liberated nations had been resentful of that power for decades. But if there’s a split between Continental Europe and the Anglosphere, or a split between the USA and Europe that leaved the UK stranded in the middle, the countries of the former Soviet Block are likely to stick with Europe. The brief dream of a New Europe embracing US values perished when US values became poisonous with the current economic crisis.

The Chinese seem well aware of this and determined to stick to methods that have worked:

“The social unrest caused by Russia’s ‘shock therapy,’ Latin America’s ‘radical reform,’ or certain African countries’ copying of the U.S. political system proves that slavish imitation of Western democracy will lead to turmoil. Democracy takes various forms according to different national condition, and good democracy should first suit a country’s national conditions. China has attached great importance to the people’s livelihood and incremental reform, and pursued suitable democracy through gradual innovation in a pragmatic manner.”[14]

China after Mao opted for a more moderate version of socialism, a system that Mao himself was willing to allow at times, until he found that the USA was going to be implacably hostile and determines to restore the Kuomintang whatever he might do. People tend to forget that the USA kept China out of the United Nations and insisted that the rump Kuomintang regime was the real government of China until the early 1970s. Or that Chiang Kaishek repeatedly promised to take back the mainland, which was a joke if based on his own forces but would have become deadly serious if the USA had been able to win its war in South Vietnam and look for new targets.

Mao had reason to take a hard line and treat anyone with Western connections as a potential traitor until the US normalised relationships. By that time Mao had created a very high level of collectivism and wanted to keep it. After his death his heirs decided to allow elements of capitalism and private enterprise to spring up again, but always under strict control.

“China long ago dumped the core of the communist economic system, replacing rigid central planning with commercially minded state enterprises that coexist with a vigorous private sector. Yet for all their liberalization of the economy, Chinese leaders have been careful to keep control of the commanding heights of politics through the party’s grip on the ‘three Ps’: personnel, propaganda, and the People’s Liberation Army.

“The PLA is the party’s military, not the country’s. Unlike in the West, where controversies often arise about the potential politicization of the military, in China the party is on constant guard for the opposite phenomenon, the depoliticization of the military…

“Perhaps most importantly, the party dictates all senior personnel appointments in ministries and companies, universities and the media, through a shadowy and little-known body called the Organization Department. Through the department, the party oversees just about every significant position in every field in the country. Clearly, the Chinese remember Stalin’s dictate that the cadres decide everything…

“Under the reforms kick-started by Deng Xiaoping in the late 1970s, the party has gradually removed itself from the private lives of all but the most recalcitrant of dissidents. The waning in the 1980s and 1990s of the old cradle-to-grave system of state workplaces, health care, and other social services also dismantled an intricate system of controls centered on neighborhood committees, which among other purposes were used for snooping on ordinary citizens.

“The party has benefited hugely from this shift, even if many young people these days have little knowledge of what the party does and consider it irrelevant to their lives. That suits party leaders perfectly. Ordinary people are not encouraged to take an interest in the party’s internal operations, anyway.”[15]

This comes from a blog, but a blog at an official site called Global Times, so perhaps it puts the ‘insider’ view in blunter language than could be done officially.

On the matter of welfare, there was a gap between workplace-based welfare and a more Western-style system that was worrying but has now been largely filled:

“A decade ago, 147 million urban employees and 55 million rural residents had pension coverage. Now 229 million urban employees are covered, and 449 million rural and urban residents; 124 million are already receiving payments. A few years ago, barely 20% of rural dwellers had medical insurance; now 96% of the population are covered.

“While inequality has soared over the past decade – the gap between town and country has expanded, with rural dwellers enjoying less than a third of average urban incomes on official measures and perhaps as little as a fifth according to experts – research by Tony Saich of Harvard University found that satisfaction with the government had actually gone up between 2003 and 2011.

“Strikingly, significant increases were seen among the poorest and the wealthiest. ‘When we started, those in the poorest categories were least satisfied with the local government,’ Saich said. ‘That’s where I think things like the dibao [a subsidy for the poorest] and some kind of medical insurance have improved their view.'”[16]

The same article says

“There are obvious funding problems. The pensions of current retirees are being paid by new workers … and the demographics are working against the system. China is ageing rapidly and its workforce is shrinking. In 2000, there were six workers for every person over 60. By 2030, there will be barely two. ‘”[17]

This would logically imply that the young should shoot the surplus elderly, both in China and the West, which will have the same problem rather sooner. Of course it’s not saying that: the argument relies on the New Right dogma that old people living off welfare paid for by taxes are a burden, but old people living off private wealth are an asset. This has been accepted as an unwelcome truth by many on the left, but in fact there is no logic to it.

People fail to realise that money is just an agreed set of social relationships – that private wealth is just an agreed entitlement, not different in kind from a right to a portion of taxes, with both dependent on real wealth created by work and knowledge. It ignores the basic truth that a richer society can afford to support large numbers of old people from the wealth that most of them would have created during their time as workers.


Goodbye, Han Suyin [and also Prince Sihanouk of Cambodia]

Elizabeth Comber, born Rosalie Matilda Kuanghu Chow and best known by her pen-name Han Suyin (China’s Little Writer) has just died. She became famous for Love Is a Many Splendored Thing, a romantic novel based on a real romance she had had. When published in 1952, it was controversial for a love that crossed the race barrier: her parents were a Chinese engineer who studied in Europe and a Flemish mother with aristocratic connections. It was controversial but popular, society was already beginning to change.

Much less well received was And the Rain My Drink, which gave an accurate picture of the suppression of Communism by the British in Malaya, at a time when the official British line was that it was just a bunch of bandits. It also offended the Communists, showing real weaknesses rather than the untouchable heroic ideal that was necessary for the success of the movement, where it succeeded. But Zhou Enlai decided she was useful as a friendly external voice, when she came back to China and thought she could be part of the big modernisation. Given her privileged background and the fact that she had married a Kuomintang officer who became a general, it was lucky for her that she followed Zhou’s advice and became a detached admirer. She wrote a series of interesting autobiographical works, beginning with The Crippled Tree. As well as telling her own tale, she gives an excellent account of the weakness, corruption and neuroticism of pre-Communist China.

Interestingly, Han Suyin fits a set of Chinese ladies who’ve blossomed with Western husbands or lovers. None of them connected to the others yet following a similar pattern. One of the unexplained patterns one finds in human affairs.

Her old friend Prince Sihanouk also died recently. I’d not have bothered mentioning him, except that the obituary in The Economist includes a useful admission of why he failed:

“He was indifferent to the poverty of the countryside, the corruption of his officials and the spread of communist cells; his peasants he saw as disobedient children who needed to be put in their place. After one revolt, the heads of villagers were displayed in the capital on spikes.

“Meanwhile, his diplomatic neutrality was cracking too. As Vietcong in their thousands sought sanctuary from American firepower in the jungles of eastern Cambodia, he let them stay—and in 1970 his generals, with American backing, organised a putsch against him. Outraged at this treachery, he threw his support behind Cambodia’s communists (‘Khmers Rouges’, in his dismissive phrase), giving them legitimacy at a stroke. In 1975 they seized power.”[18]

Cambodian society was a mess in 1970, but might possibly have muddled through without too much damage, had it been left alone. The Vietnamese used it as a base but otherwise left it alone. It was the USA that destroyed Cambodia, as part of a half-arsed scheme to win the Vietnam War. Having been following the war closely at the time, I remember the brief run of a story about “COSVN“, a Vietcong command centre in Cambodia that the USA was going to find and destroy. At the time, many people said that the ‘command centre’ was likely to be 4 men under a tree. Or elements of it may have been scattered in deep tunnels within Vietnam: it has since emerged that the Vietcong had more tunnels and deeper tunnels than the USA ever knew about. Former US commander General Westmorland believed till the end that COSVN was real, just unfortunately not found. Unlike Iraq’s ‘weapons of mass destruction’, it is hard to disprove. But still very unlikely.

Cambodia was shattered by the USA pursuing what was almost certainly a myth. The ensuring chaos led to an immense increase in strength by the Khmers Rouges, chaos usually favouring radical authoritarians or ruthless conservatives and disappointing any anarchists that may be around. (I’ve not heard there were any in Cambodia, but there were plenty in Russia and Spain and even a few in China. Mao as a young man was interested in anarchism, but correctly concluded that it would achieve nothing in a country already torn apart by rival warlords.)

The Khmers Rouges failed to cope with several years of chaos and bombing, followed by the USA casually dumping its supporters in Indochina and leaving Cambodia with the threat of a Vietnamese invasion. It was an early example of what has become a familiar pattern: the USA smashes an imperfect system and then evades responsibility when something worse follows.



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[7] Religious Jews also define Saturday as beginning at sunset on Friday and ending on the next sunset, so that they vanish on what Christians would regard as Friday evening.

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[11] Edwards, Ruth Dudley (1993) The Pursuit of Reason: The Economist 1843–1993

[12] 7th November

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