Newsnotes 2005 02

Notes On The News

by Gwydion M Williams

Sudan to split?

Releasing the Hogs Of War [Government and Democracy in Africa]

Heroes East and West [Alexander and the First Qin Emperor]

Non-Martyrs of the New Right [Zhao Ziyang]

Chinese ‘Capitalism’

Fearsome dinosaur-eating mammals (deceased)

Work Hard, Torture Hard [Britain in Iraq]

God wins Iraqi Election?

Sound-Bitten royals

Some more good websites


Sudan to split?

Since the Biafra War of the late 1960s, everyone has agreed that Africa’s arbitrary borders should be respected, because there simply aren’t any ‘natural’ borders that could replace them. Existing wars of secession would get worse, if it was shown that they could succeed.

That was a rule established when the USA was a more serious power. Nowadays they have no idea of what they are doing; just a belief that they have a glorious past. Helping Black Christian Sudanese to split from a mostly Muslim-Arab government is a cheap way of pleasing Black Christian US citizens.

“Sudan’s civil war begun in 1956 and, apart from break in the 1970s, it has continued ever since…

“The civil war has been between the southern leadership of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement and the northern government in Khartoum. These are powerful groups but they are both minorities in their respective areas. The leadership of SPLM is drawn almost entirely from the Dinka people, one of dozens of groups who inhabit the south… The question is whether they will treat all areas equally or will they become another greedy oppressive tribal elite led by a dictator…

“The peace agreement allows for a six-month period to agree a new constitution, then six years to implement it, ending in a referendum by southerners on the future of the south.

“The revenue from Sudanese oil, will be split 50-50 between the national government and the southern administration. Crucially, at the end of a six year interim period, there will be a referendum on southern independence.

“Many southerners say if the vote was held tomorrow, the south would vote for freedom.” (BBC Online.)

Just another bit of ‘Cowboy Diplomacy’. Because freedom without stable politics hasn’t worked anywhere else in Africa.

[The split was eventually forced through. South Sudan has had internal wars ever since.]


Releasing the Hogs Of War [Government and Democracy in Africa]

That Mark Thatcher eventually got released was no big surprise. He was too big a name to be jailed, really. For now we have him back, and it seems that he may be shut out of the USA by laws that have to be applied impartially even though they were not aimed at people like him.

[This was in connection with the 2004 Equatorial Guinea coup d’état attempt.]

Of course laws also have loopholes, and I’d not be surprised at all if one appeared. I’d be glad if we were rid of him, frankly.

But what of the wider issues?

People say that bad government has been Africa’s main problem. In a way, it is true. The continent has absorbed vast amounts of aid with little to show for it. But most of those who say it, want to replace bad government with worse government. Minimal government that runs an ‘Open Legs’ policy for the benefit of global businesses which take what they want and do nothing for the people.

To move from tribalism to a modern society has always needed an elite that was insulated from the bulk of the society and could ignore its feelings. In Britain, this was done by a ruling class that transformed the society over several centuries and kept the electoral system limited to their sort of people.

In the USA, there was more democracy much earlier. But it was also a ‘plutophile’ democracy, a very mobile society that let lots of people think they would be rich soon and could ignore their actual and immediate interests. Some of them ‘made it’, of course, but the key point was that small property and tradition failed to use democracy to defend itself effectively.

That’s one model, and was rather dependent on a fertile frontier with cheap land that had been violently seized from its original inhabitants. Plus a flow of immigrants from societies where the whole society had already been Modernised. Elsewhere, other methods needed to be use

Leninist societies did it by a party elite with a strong ideology and a centralised structures. The Republic of India did it thanks to two centuries of British rule, followed by an elite educated in British ways. The Congress Party was able to dominate the critical early years and India does OK.

Africa remains a mess. A single ‘Republic Of Africa’ for everything south of the Sahara would probably have worked better. But the land had been taken by different colonial powers and a set of small weak states were created instead. All of them were given a kind of Parliamentary Democracy, which predictably split along tribal lines.


Heroes East and West [Alexander and the First Qin Emperor]

Alexander invaded a unified and successful Persian Empire. After his death his dynasty were displaced and murdered, and his realm split into a number of unstable states with Greek rulers, which fought continuously until the Parthians kicked them out of Persia proper and until Rome conquered them from the West. Alexander is a Hero, and the only controversy is over his sexuality. (In my view Rosemary Sutcliff was very good at showing the alien nature of Classic Greek society. Not just about sex; about almost everything you can think of.)

Alexander started from his father’s work, a unified Greece under Macedonian rule. Instead of just extending it to Asia Minor, he plunged destructively into the heart of the Persian Empire, breaking up what had been a relatively peaceful realm. He also conquered Afghanistan, acquiring a wife on the way, and conquered a chunk of North-West India. He’d massively over-extended and his empire broke up after his death. His son and various relatives were murdered and power passed to some of his generals. But who (outside of Persia) sees his conquest as an act of vandalism that resulted in no stable order?

Meantime a film called Hero is a kung-fu epic based loosely on an historic attempt to assassinate the King of Qin, the First Emperor who unified China’s warring states about a hundred years after Alexander. No one in China noticed Alexander, of course. Even in the Indian subcontinent, he was seen as just another passing invader of India’s vulnerable north-east. But though the Qin Dynasty was also exterminated, it was followed by the Han Dynasty, whose empire was probably stronger than Rome. Gibbon’s Decline And Fall describes how the Chinese started the westward movement that destroyed the Roman Empire by kicking out the Huns from their own borders. Beyond this and a small trade in silk and other luxuries, there was very little contact in an era when even a thousand miles was a gigantic gulf.

Hero is one of several good epics to have come from the Chinese Peoples Republic following the success of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. But this tale was as much historic as personal. Some Western critics are offended that China’s First Emperor could be seen as having a point, and that his ruthless policies had a point.

It is very much them-and-us. Conquerors identified with ‘us’ are fine and admirable, however destructive and however temporary their work. The main debate is whether there private lives were as we would wish them, though currently ‘we’ don’t quite agree on that. Film-makers can produce films with a gay lead-character, but they won’t get a big enough audience to justify a ‘blockbuster’. But films that would once just have been ‘art house’ can reach a mass audience, suggesting public taste is not so bad after all.

The latest Chinese epic is the stylish House of Flying Daggers. Stylish, but a bit substanceless. The plot-twists are ingenious; several people are not what they seem. But when all the revelations have happened, neither of the male leads emerge as likeable. Not even as averagely decent humans, in my view. I was wondering why the leading lady couldn’t get someone better.

Still, House of Flying Daggers has some brilliant moments. A fight in a bamboo forest is reminiscent of the late-1960s A Touch Of Zen, but this film maybe does it better. Definitely, China has a very rich vein of history that could be mined. Extraordinary epics, bandit-chiefs who became emperors and established emperors who fell to barbarian hoards. There should be a lot more to come.


Non-Martyrs of the New Right [Zhao Ziyang]

‘China’s Gorbachev’ ought to be an insult – in Russia it would be, and maybe in China it really is. For Western journalists, it was a term of praise for the late Zhao Ziyang, who fell from power in 1989, when the Chinese Communist Party showed that it was not moribund and was willing to use deadly force to put down the demonstrators who threatened its power in Tiananmen Square.

Zhao’s exact role remains disputed. Some say he tried to moderate: others that he caused most of the trouble by trying to use the demonstrators to strengthen his own leadership:

“I was a high school student in China in 89. The 89 uprising was just Zhao’s and student leaders’ failed attempt to grasp more power. The students were naive enough to be used by them. Zhao is no longer relevant in China. James, Auckland, New Zealand

“Tiananmen could have had a more peaceful solution if Zhao did not try to manipulate it and use it to solidify his own power. His actions on May 19, 1989 and afterwards escalated the whole thing. I know so many former participants of the demonstration who now think they had been unwittingly manipulated and used by Zhao and his close associates. Fortunately, Zhao did not succeed to become the Gorbachev of China, but he had done more than enough damage. More and more Chinese people are realising that Zhao was just another politician who put his own interest above that of the people.   Jenny, Chinese living in California, USA”. (BBC Online).

Whatever about that, Zhao accepted his removal and a comfortable retirement. A Book Of New Right Martyrs would be a remarkably slim volume. Mostly they co-opt idealists from basically different causes. And with a risk of ‘blow-back’; the ‘brave fighters against Soviet power in Afghanistan’ emerged as a mix of drug-gangsters and religious extremists who hated the west. The performance of Iraqi ‘allies’ must make US veterans nostalgic for the ARVN, the South Vietnamese forces who would at least fight and die, even if they were corrupt and inefficient.

There were in 1989 some brave protesters for further Westernisation of China. But Chinese liberal-democracy is several decades older than Chinese Communism, and has been much less successful. The West actually just wanted the appearance of a government, something to sanctify an ‘Open Legs’ trade policy. (‘Open Door’ was the official term, but ‘Open Legs’ gives you the substance of what was happening.) The pro-Western revolution of 1911 did not get proper support, and nor did the anti-Communist regime of Chiang Kai-Shek. Mao himself turned to Communism when he saw it as the only meaningful path to a strong China.

Parliamentary Democracy is a decent method of stabilising what you’ve got. If you’re trying to rebuild or radically change a society, it won’t work. Britain, of course, was not a democracy during its industrial Revolution. One-tenth of the adult male population had the vote, and most of those were in a few wide-franchise seats. A few hundred rich men controlled a comfortable majority of House of Commons seats. Only in 1885 did you get 50/50 democracy: the votes of at least half the adult male population controlled at least half the formal political power. And that was just for Britain: white colonies had their own parliaments, but non-whites were treated as zoo-animals to be looked after by benevolent keepers churned out by the British Public School system.


Chinese ‘Capitalism’

I’d been anyway going to say something about Chinese politics, even if Zhao were still alive. Western commentators are puzzled that they stick with methods that work, rather than those that brought down the Soviet Union.

“Huawei—one of China’s most dynamic and ambitious companies and one of a handful, alongside Haier in white goods, Lenovo in personal computers, TCL in televisions and steelmaker Baosteel, whose names are starting to be heard around the world…

“While it insists that it is a private company owned by its employees, Ren Zhengfei, one of its founders, was an officer in the People’s Liberation Army. The company denies, but admits it cannot shake, speculation that it is really controlled by the military. It denies even more hotly rumours that its overseas offices, some run from Chinese consulates, spy for China…

“Whereas policymakers in Japan and South Korea deliberately nurtured strong private companies (albeit often with close political ties), the Chinese government, deeply afraid of a politically independent private sector, implemented reforms that have given state firms privileged access to capital, technology and markets. But in order for the economy to grow faster, the central government has allowed foreign companies into China at a much earlier stage of its development.” (The struggle of the champions, Economist, Jan 6th 2005).

Deng Xiaoping’s ‘Feed the rich’ policies allowed China to re-connection to the global economy on favourable terms. China during Mao’s quarter-century of rule grew considerably faster than the USA. China acquired its own nuclear weapons and unmanned spacecraft. China after Mao got a very good deal from the USA, precisely because they were strong enough to be able to say ‘no’. Likewise in 1989, the USA did as little as the US public would let them get away with, precisely because China still had options. Mao accepted some economic damage in a drive towards communism. Deng preferred a mixed economy, but still with social control.

Deng was followed by Jiang Zemin, who ruled with total blandness. He was followed by Hu Jintao, who became head of China’s ruling Communist Party in late 2002

“Some believed Mr Hu’s lack of experience, charisma and factional support meant he would remain firmly under the thumb of the man he was replacing, Jiang Zemin. Others, pointing to reforms he had reportedly made as head of the Communist Youth Corps, said he was a dark horse who could turn out to be China’s Gorbachev – he might do for politics what Mr Jiang and before him Deng Xiaoping had done for the economy, and finally free the world’s next superpower from its Leninist straitjacket. But the pundits seem to have been wrong on both counts…

“When Mr Hu and his new Prime Minister Wen Jiabao came to power, they presented themselves as a kinder and gentler fourth generation of leaders, intent on helping those left behind by the economic reforms. The two leaders made high-profile trips to poorer areas….

“The new government championed “sustainable development” and took steps to cool off the construction fever that had engulfed cities like Shanghai, sending in teams to investigate malpractice by local officials. The fact that Mr Hu and Mr Wen have done that in the very city where Jiang Zemin has his political powerbase suggests they have begun to take the offensive, according to Li Cheng, professor of government at Hamilton College in the United States.

“As a wise politician, Hu Jintao quickly sensed that his mandate was to fix the serious problems that occurred during the Jiang era.

“These include Jiang’s favourable policies towards Shanghai and other coastal regions at the expense of the interior, his single-minded goal to increase the GDP without paying attention to social cohesion, and his obsession with patron-client ties,” he said.

“Mr Hu has tried to reform the workings of the Communist Party to improve its ability to govern. But his populist leanings and desire for change only go so far. There has been no movement towards the types of genuine political reform that were discussed in the 1980s but have been taboo ever since – such as separating Party from Government.” (Tim Luard, China‘s leader shows his stripes , BBC Online, 11th Jan 2005.)

Deng’s ‘Feed the rich’ policies may have produced genuine ‘trickle-down’ to the less fortunate. In Britain it didn’t happen, in the USA there was no ‘trickle-down’ even to the working mainstream of society. But China and India between them have lifted vast numbers of people out of poverty since the 1980s. And are also correcting imbalances through their own sort of socialism.

There is an inherent antagonism between equality and the Western idea ‘rights of the individual’. You have the right to a lawyer, but not a doctor. The idea carefully excludes economic rights; no guarantee of education, a job, health care or even drinkable water. It is rigged to suit the better-off.

Gorbachev took over a Soviet Union that was falling behind the West, but still comfortably ahead of China. Nowadays the gap is much smaller and has perhaps been closed. Putin is popular among Russians, simply because he stopped the rot.


Fearsome dinosaur-eating mammals (deceased)

“Scientists at the American Museum of Natural History in New York unveiled the fossil of a mammal, found in Northeast China, with a baby dinosaur in its stomach… Most mammals of the Mesozoic era, between 144 and 65 million years ago, were the size of today’s mice and rats. But the latest discovery shows some mammals, the Repenomamus or “reptile mammals,” had a much greater range of body sizes than previously known, suggesting that some large mammals competed with dinosaurs for food and territory.” (Yahoo, Jan 12th.)

The first sign of the doom of the dinosaurs? Not at all. New Scientist has a rather better account:

“The sturdily built mammals lived in China about 130 million years ago, around 65 million years before we thought their kind inherited the Earth. At 1 metre long, R. giganticus was big enough to hunt small dinosaurs, and a newly discovered fossil of its smaller cousin, R. robustus, died with its belly full of young dinosaur.

“While a handful of teeth and other fragmentary remains hinted that a few large mammals may have lived alongside the dinosaurs, little was known about them.

“The Repenomamus species, however, have no living descendants… a poorly understood group of primitive raccoon or opossum-like creatures that diverged from modern mammals during the Mesozoic… faded from the fossil record by the late Cretaceous, and may have died out before the dinosaurs.”

The rats and mice inherited the earth, and diversified into some interesting forms. Monkeys maybe developed their brains to cope with the complexities of living in trees. But also for living in increasingly complex communities. And for finding extra things to do with their increasingly versatile hands. And also naked faces; most monkeys have relatively hairless faces and have a wider range of expressions than you’d see in a cat or an elephant.

As with so many other things, humans are the top of the tree. Not in size or violence, but in the vital skill of communicating.


Work Hard, Torture Hard [Britain in Iraq]

Britain has been dirtied by its involvement in Iraq, which was pretty predictable. The particular scandal in the news happened in an area where there was no local resistance. Apparently British got orders to ‘deal firmly’ with Iraqis who had been accused of stealing food. If you use a hazy phrase like ‘worked hard’ to British troops, what do you think is going to happen? Worse was done in Kenya, but that was 50 years ago, the tail-end of Imperialism. Nothing so bad happened in Northern Ireland, where it was suspects from a rival army. But of course the Irish are white, and the British Army remains almost totally white, in sharp contrast to the US pattern.

Given the mess the occupation had made of Iraq, the Iraqi suspects probably were stealing food. They were not out to kill anyone, which makes the actions even worse than what the USA were up to. Not all of the USA’s suspects were guilty, obviously, but there was some logic to it.

What’s also astonishing is that we have this case because one of the soldiers took photos and then tried to have them developed at an ordinary chemists, where the staff were understandably horrified and made an official complaint. So how many other cases may there have been, where the soldiers were not quite as stupid?


God wins Iraqi Election?

“Although the official result of Sunday’s poll is not expected to be announced for several days, the Guardian has seen three sets of provisional voting figures compiled separately by a senior Iraqi official, a leading member of the Shia alliance, and a top Kurdish politician. A rough analysis of the numbers suggest that the United Iraqi Alliance, the main Shia list, is hovering around the 48-50% mark, which could give it 135 to 138 of the 275 seats in the assembly. The Kurdish slate is running at about 30% – 85 to 90 seats – which could give it the balance of power in the new parliament and the possibility of acting as kingmaker in the creation of the transitional government. In third place is the coalition headed by the interim prime minister, Ayad Allawi, with 12% to 15% of the vote, and in a strong fourth place is the Iraqi Communist party. Lists led by Sunni Arab politicians, such as the interim president Ghazi al-Yawer and Adnan Pachachi, are thought to have won only a couple of seats each.” (Guardian, 2nd February).

This comes from an article entitled Kurd leaders may play kingmaker in parliament, which is not at all how I read it. The Religious Shia have nearly half the votes and seats.  No plausible government can be formed without them, and it would be astonishingly stupid for them to become a new set of US stooges.

There are constitutional rules that would force them into such a role, some will say. But the Religious Shia have never exactly accepted the Occupation, and includes those who fought the US last year around their Holy Shrines. They could perfectly well rule without either the Kurds or the Government List. And whatever the US-written rules may say, an assembly of more than half of the elected members could simply declare that they were the new Government. Given that most non-voters are even more hostile, how could the US ignore it>

Rather more likely is that the Religious Shia team up with the Kurds, whose main quarrel is with the Sunni. They might even make a separate deal with one of the two rival Kurd parties, each of which has seats on a common list. There may be a written rule forbidding lists to split, but could the US really dare oppose the expressed will of a majority arising from elections they themselves organised?

It does depend on the results being as uneven as the Guardian report says it is. But BBC Online are telling much the same story; the Religious Shia have outvoted the Government List by at least 3 to 1 and there is no ‘balance of power’ (First partial result in Iraq vote).

I also think that George Bush Junior is less of a fool than he sounds. He may have worked out that this was likely to happen—and that the alternative was worse, Shia insurgency if an election was not held. He’s already paved the way for a sudden withdrawal if asked and for an Islamist Iraq if that is the people’s choice. So he can cut his losses and get out without total disaster.


Sound-Bitten royals

I’ve always thought that people dressing up as Nazis was rather tasteless. Some subjects are not funny. If it were up to me, I’d put a ban on the Spanish Inquisition, Jack the Ripper and other nasty power-models that attract a certain sort of fool. But it is not up to me, and dressing up as Nazis has been a common habit that has not previously been treated seriously.

Prince Harry should have known better, they say. Known what? Known that the rules were going to be re-written after a private party suddenly became newsworthy? You’re not allowed to know in advance what the rules are: but you must apologise humbly, when told you have broken them.

The uniform was actually that of Rommel’s Afrika Korps, a point that you have to look hard to discover. Technically it is a Nazi uniform, in as much as they had sworn allegiance to Hitler and the Nazi cause. But say ‘the uniform of Rommel’s Afrika Korps’, and the sound-bite would have been toothless.

I suggest that Prince Harry does a swift conversion to Buddhism, or maybe Taoism. Something that would put him out of the line of succession, which is limited to members of the Church of England. Then he could get on with being a young fool without further hassle.


Some more good websites

Look at [] for the reasons why scientists do overwhelmingly regard Creation Science as rubbish.

For the more distant past, as well as some current events, news about astronomy is to be found at []. Local weather is obtainable at [] as well as Yahoo, while the BBC has some beautiful maps at [].

Maps of another sort are available at [], as well as a free downloadable ‘Sun-clock’, (Windows only) which shows day and night across the whole globe. Also a ‘live’ montage of the sun, moon and Earth as they change day by day.

Incidentally, the [square brackets] are a little trick that you can use on Microsoft Word. It tells the software that it should not be marking a web name as a hyperlink.

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