Notes On The News
By Gwydion M Williams
The West threw away its official commitment to ‘human rights’ and ‘rule of law’ in its fight with a slew of small weak Islamic terror organisations after 9/11. It had largely trashed notions of sovereignty and international law with the messy break-up of Yugoslavia and the invasion of Iraq on the basis of false accusations. Confirmed the dishonesty of the process when the USA and some European states declared that Kosovo had become sovereign and could hang on to its majority-Serb north. The West from last year is facing growing chaos from bad debts, suggestions that the financial system has been rotten for decades. Now China shows no interest in further Westernisation. The West in the shape of its media people finds this utterly baffling.
China has had a splendid Olympics. Since being let back in to international sport after the USA finally dropped its two-decade non-recognition, China has risen in the rankings. Thanks to the boycott of Moscow in 1980 over Afghanistan and then the retaliatory boycott of Los Angeles in 1984, 1988 was the first Olympics in which the whole world took part on something like an equal basis. They came 11th there, with 5 golds and 28 medals overall. 4th with 16 and 54 in 1992, 4th again with 16 / 50 in 1996, 3rd with 28 / 59 in 2000, second with 32 / 63 in 2004. This year’s total – 51 golds and 100 total – confirms their dominance.
Being in one’s own country with home crowds and no travel stress may have boosted their rise, but they were rising anyway. Being the host nation certainly helps. Excluding the 1984 Olympics, which Russia and its friends boycotted, Atlanta 1996 was the USA’s best since 1904 when they were also the host nation and only 12 nations participated.[A] But I’d say that Chinese coming first is likely to be the norm from now on. An increasingly prosperous China will also have more and more people interested in sport for its own sake. Children who are promising at a young age are not the only source of talent: some develops later. This was found very clearly in the academic world. Once education became widespread, it was found that children who’d shown no unusual early gifts could become outstanding scientists – true of Einstein, Fred Hoyle and Stephen Hawkins, among others.
Sport is just one part of this rise. I went to China in 1997 and again this year, both times to see a total solar eclipse as well as to see the country. Both times I was impressed by how modern China was becoming, and also how much of its rise seemed self-contained, only incidentally needing foreign trade. China has just become the biggest market for Japanese exports, replacing the USA.[D] China will soon overtake the USA as the biggest manufacturer by value. It is no longer a matter of cheap Chinese goods, though these have become essential to the rest of the world.
“China is set to overtake the US next year as the world’s largest producer of manufactured goods, four years earlier than expected, as a result of the rapidly weakening US economy.
“The great leap is revealed in forecasts for the Financial Times by Global Insight, a US economics consultancy. According to the estimates, next year China will account for 17 per cent of manufacturing value-added output of $11,783bn and the US will make 16 per cent…
“The expected change will end more than a 100 years of US dominance. It returns China to a position it occupied, according to economic historians, for some 1,800 years up to about 1840, when Britain became the world’s biggest manufacturer after its Industrial Revolution.
“Value-added data are arrived at by subtracting ‘inputs’ – such as purchases of materials, parts and services – from raw ‘gross output’ as measured by the sales of individual companies.” [E]
In one sense, this is a return to older balance, as the Financial Times notes. In another sense, it is all very new. China was never a major importer or exporter, trading mostly in silk and other luxury goods and producing its own necessities. Traditionally China also showed little interest in ruling lands that were neither a potential threat nor bordering territories that could be incorporated as regular Chinese provinces. Much of what we now think of as China started as border territory under some Chinese influence. 2000 years ago, Mao’s home province of Hunan was jungle where settlers from the north cleared the forest and planted rice. Under the Ming dynasty it was part of the province of Huguang, split into Hunan and Hubei only under the Quin, China’s final dynasty. The same thing happened rather more slowly in what became Guizhou, Guangxi, Yunan etc.
There were also failures: the Red River Valley was once a province but acquired its own identity as the north of what became Vietnam. The famous Ming Voyages when China got as far as East Africa went in parallel with an attempt to re-impose full control over Vietnam. When this failed the overseas trade made less sense and China tried just hanging onto what it had.
In the modern world, China seems content to be just one nation-state among many. It should make for a stable future, provided US power crashes or is curbed without some general disaster.
The Olympics began badly for Russia, winning far less medals than were expected. They recovered nearer the end and ended in 3rd place. As Russia or as the Soviet Union they have been 1st or 2nd since joining the Olympics in 1952. In 2004 they were 3rd and that seems likely to be their future norm. The USA may need to get used to being second.
The USA is counting itself the winner because it got 110 medals to China’s 100. By this count, China also came 3rd in 2004 when Russia had more medals, though less golds. But a weighted total – 3 for gold, 2 for silver and 1 for bronze – would make it a narrow Chinese victory, 223 to 220. A clearer victory using a ranking system the British press invented in 1908 gold medals 5 points, silver medals 3 and bronzes 1, which would make it 346 to 330 in China’s favour.[C] Little else would have changed in the ranking, though France would have moved from 10th to 7th . and Australia would be ahead of Germany. Cuba would also have risen: they were 28th by golds but 12th equal by total medals. By weighed totals, Cuba with a population of less than 12 million would be the highest-ranking nation that was neither white nor East Asian. They also came ahead of the USA in Olympic Baseball.
Britain getting 4th overall looks like a run of luck, but may have something to do with lottery money. And with putting a lot of money into minority sports with a lot of Olympic medals, the same tactic the Chinese have used. It’s better than the USA method, buying up foreign athletes who get US citizenship on the basis of their sporting success.
The respective successes of men and woman are interesting. If you split the national teams by sexes, the top twelve would be Chinese women, Chinese men, US men, US women, Russian men, Russian women, British men, Australian women, South Korean men, German men, British women, French Men. ‘La Belle France’ had the biggest imbalance of any major sporting nation: 6 golds and 30 total for the men, 1 gold and 7 total for the women. [B]
It is definitely the rise of East Asia, not Asia as a whole. Japan and South Korea both finished in the Top Ten. By contrast the Republic of India was 50th with one gold, two bronzes. Indonesia came 42nd with one gold and five overall. North Korea did better than that.
Jamaica, Kenya and Ethiopia all did well, but all of their medals came from athletics, in fact all came from running. It wasn’t just Usain Bolt: Jamaica got four more golds, two silvers and two bronze medals, most of them from women’s events. As usual, Ethiopia did well in long-distance running.
The USA were clear winners in athletics, with Russia 2nd and Jamaica 3rd, Cuba 7th and Britain 9th equal. China remains weak in athletics, 35th with a pair of bronze medals. This may improve in future Olympics, as has begun to happen with Chinese swimming this year.
And what of the next games, London 2012? Britain is not poor, but Britain since Thatcher has been increasingly mean-spirited. The plans began with a logo that is a meaningless squiggle and has continued with a weak psychotic murderess getting included in the advertising at Beijing. Sadly, this is all too truthful as a representation of what Britain currently is. The 2012 Olympics may pass muster but I doubt they will bring much credit.[L]
The BBC seems offended by China doing so well – I saw one commentator in a rowing heat say that ‘the Chinese can’t respond’, after a Czech team caught up and just before the Chinese did respond and end the race with a clear win. To have made a big fuss about Britain’s ‘surge’ was fair enough, but China’s success was given as little attention as possible. It is bound to irritate those Chinese who want to see the British viewpoint.
If the BBC hadn’t already thrown away the hard-won reputation for fairness that earlier generations had built, it is surely gone now.
The BBC keep the ‘Missionary Instinct’ – Britons are consistently sure that foreigners need to copy our ways, even though the reasons and details vary. In the 19th century it was necessary to make them Christian, with non-British culture erased. Then it was a fixed belief that those countries needed white men to run things properly. Nowadays it is necessary that they should have multi-party democracy – never mind that in Britain the system was stabilised by two-party elections controlled by an oligarchy between 1688 and 1832. The first British election that could be called democratic happened in 1884. And it saw the rise of Irish Nationalism, a process that led to war and remains unresolved.
BBC founder Lord Reith was shrewd enough to realise that a high degree of objectivity in BBC News would serve Britain better than news slanted to immediate British needs. The current lot are mostly HIFs, Highly Intelligent Fools who are clever at short-term manipulation and too foolish to realise that this is bound to fail in the longer run. A habit of slanting the news means that you are not taken very seriously even when you do have something significant to say.
Westerners protesting about Tibet are much the same: they simply irritate those Westernised Chinese who might have been the basis for undermining the culture. Violence in Xinjiang has been nasty but small-scale, confirming that the earlier crack-down was justified and that it was largely successful.
“Mao Zedong stands astride modern Chinese history, but he was a no-show at the Beijing Olympics.
“His name was not mentioned during the Olympic opening ceremonies. His face— once ever-present across China—was not on Olympic posters, though it is emblazoned on the Chinese banknotes used to buy admission tickets.
“To find Mao, you had to travel to Tiananmen Square, where thousands of Chinese still line up every day for the chance to get a glimpse of his ever-waxier, glass-encased corpse.
“Or you could go to flea markets, where you’ll find paintings of Mao, and posters of Mao and statues of Mao that go from small desktop busts to larger-than-life versions…
“Particularly in rural areas, it’s not hard to find people with photographs of Mao in their homes, or taxis with laminated portraits hanging from dashboards. There are even shrines that have been built for Mao—an avowed atheist who detested organized religion.” [F1]
The Olympics are meant to be non-partisan, so the Chinese excluded stuff that would have offended other nations – including Taiwan, which competed separately as ‘Chinese Taipei’ and got four bronzes. (Hong Kong also had its own team, yet was also the host for the six equestrian events.) But if anything, Mao’s status has been rising under the heirs of Deng Xiaoping. In 1997, Mao shared the 100-yuan banknote with Zhou Enlai, Zhu De and his old foe Liu Shaoqi. That was the 4th series of the renminbi: the current 5th series has just Mao on every denomination of note, apart from one special issue that was just for the Olympics.
Some individual sports people did show a more open devotion:
“Chinese badminton star Lin Dan had a quick explanation for the triumph that earned him an Olympic gold medal: It was the pin of Mao Zedong that he wore during the match, Lin said, along with the prayers he’d said at Mao’s birthplace before the Olympics began.
“Now, he told reporters, he must ‘pay another visit’ to Mao’s village to say thanks.” [F2]
This sort of thing applied even during Mao’s lifetime, with a lot of rank-and-file Chinese communists seeming to view Marx as a ‘tutelary spirit’ who might help them. This is in line with Chinese history: mortal men were always worshiped as ancestors and some were also promoted to be gods. Not hugely different from Pagan Greek practice. Part of the pre-scientific outlook that had held China back and that Mao spent his whole life trying to educate the Chinese out of. Chinese success after Mao rests heavily on what Mao managed to change.
The New Right think otherwise, obviously. But when New Right ideas get tested against reality, it becomes obvious that they have been engaging in ‘magic thinking’, and not even ‘magic thinking’ of a sort that lets people live usefully and be happy. Finance and accountancy under New Right influence have become pure ‘magic thinking’: people like Enron committed gross fraud while supposing that they were in some sense honest. It’s no longer credible.
The Georgia crisis began with minor border incidents that might have been anyone’s fault. But Georgia’s leader then made a clear attempt to wipe out the entire rebellious region, in the same way that Croatia got rid of its rebellious Serbs. As the BBC reported on Sunday 10th August
“The current fighting began four days ago when Georgian forces launched a surprise attack to regain control of South Ossetia, which has had de facto independence since the end of a civil war in 1992.
“The move followed days of exchanges of heavy fire with the Russian-backed separatists. In response to the Georgian crackdown, Moscow sent armoured units across the border frontier.”
Ossetians had not been ruled by Georgians within living memory. They had been in conflict in the past, with Ossetians being pro-Bolshevik and Georgians having their own Menshevik republic which was conquered while Lenin was in charge. Georgia is small in world terms, a total population of less than 5 million, about 84% ethnic Georgians. But it is a giant compared to the Ossetians, 700,000 total and may 45,000 ethnic Ossetians in South Ossetia, which included many ethnic Georgians. It seems that there was relative peace in Soviet times. Things had settled down, but a weakening of central power was bound to re-ignite the conflict, exactly as happened in many other places, not just ex-Soviet.
From a legalistic viewpoint, Georgia was a sovereign state that chose voluntarily to be part of the Soviet Union and had the right of secession. This had never been the reality: the various ‘Union Republics’ were never actually free to go, and Georgia had been conquered. Ossetians had been pro-Russian at the time: the break-up of the Soviet Union meant that the conflict was re-ignited.
Russia backing Ossetia was a predictable follow-on from the USA arbitrarily declaring that Kosovo was independent, breaking the existing rules without trying to create any alternative system. South Ossetia wanted to quit Georgia after the Soviet Union broke up. Legally the Georgian case was valid, but legality has repeatedly been disregarded when some outside power wanted to support a separatist cause.
As the BBC report makes clear, it was Georgia that made the first move, trying to break the Separatist government. Suggesting that their government are a bunch of clever fools – it was perfectly predictable that Russia might step in, and it was their responsibility to figure the odds and whether they had useful external support. It should be a simple enough rule: don’t start something with Russians unless you figure you can finish it. Because Russians are not people who lightly back down. They did back down in the 1990s and found that each concession was the basis for a new demand and a new round of insults.
It gets overlooked that Russia has effectively won its Chechen war. There is still violence, but any Russian leader would know that pulling out again would lead to even more trouble. A quasi-independent Chechnya failed to co-exist peacefully when it had the chance after the failure of the First Chechen War.
Georgia too has blown its chances. Russia would have given a lot to ensure that Georgia was friendly, or at least neutral. But Mikheil Saakashvili as leader of Georgia seems to have trusted his US friends, the people who got him a scholarship in the 1990s and undoubtedly had a lot to do with him coming to power in the 2003 ‘Rose Revolution’. They gave him training in law, which can lead to a very false understanding of politics, especially politics where guns count for more than votes. He seems to have taken the viewpoint of a lawyer – make a smart argument and assume that someone else will enforce any favourable judgement you can secure.
The USA has once again ratted, talking as if they were going to help and then doing nothing when the chips were down. How could the leaders of Georgia fail to work out that this would happen? That Russia would be glad to act at a time when the USA was most unlikely to look for an extra war?
When Kosovo was declared sovereign by the USA and its close allies, Russia protested and Russia also made it clear that two analogous regions within Georgia were under Russian protection. Georgia’s leaders must have supposed this was a bluff, though it’s hard to see why.
Russia stands securely in its strategic partnership with China, a deal suits both states. The Nato countries are idiots to have allowed it to happen. In the 1990s they talked about a ‘New World Order’. They could have created one, if they had invested heavily to create a quality product based on a US-biased version honesty and human concern. They did some of that in the Keynesian era and won the Cold War on the strength of it.
The alternative – the choice the US made under both Bushes and under Clinton. – was to be legalistic, cheap-minded and essentially dishonest. To assume that this would work because the US public had swallowed it. It works in the USA because almost all critics are hampered by the long-established and previously successful framework of US thought. There is a deep belief in 18th-century small property values – values that included an admiration for the rich and a failure to curb them. There is also a widespread feeling that this ideal was somehow betrayed – a comfortable belief, since it avoids the need to wonder if the ideas themselves were wrong, or at least incomplete. If it was a betrayal, it happened long before Bush.
Europe mostly does not share the USA’s believe in the virtues of the USA’s 18th century roots. In Asia, believers are mostly not realistic politicians and realistic politicians are mostly not believers. The 1990s crisis in Japan and then the financial turmoil in the ‘Asian Tigers’ might have dented a belief in ‘Asian Values’. But all the time China has gone on rising and gone on ignoring Western ‘wisdom’.
I’m sure that Putin made sure he had Chinese sympathy before deciding how to respond to Georgia’s invasion of South Ossetia. It may be years before we know any details, but I doubt he’d have acted without being sure that China would not express disapproval and leave Russia isolated.
Neither Obama nor McCain have any idea what to do about it. Obama was at least honest about the lack of options. McCain blustered in a way that the US public seem to like, and it may win him the election. And then what?
China’s Olympic success looks likely to confirm the status of Xi Jinping, who was the most important official directly involved in organising it. The best guess by outsiders is that he’ll take over when Hu Jintao steps down, and would be more pro-Western than Li Keqiang, the most likely alternative.[G] Even though no Chinese leader now has the sort of personal ‘clout’ possessed by Mao and in smaller measure by Deng, the Paramount Leader still matters. You’d have thought that Western leaders would have seen the benefit in cultivating Xi Jinping by praising his big project, one that neutral observers have anyway been hugely impressed by.
Don’t say ‘free media’. The BBC has a visible ‘line’, and the British media as a whole tends to say similar things, or let similar views dominate. If Gordon Brown and foreign secretary David Miliband had had any sense, they would have seen the benefits of being clearly supportive of China’s Olympics year, making sure that anti-Chinese demonstrators in London were properly controlled etc. As things are, both men remain in an early-1990s time-warp, convinced that the New Right’s short-lived vision is Eternal Truth. There were Chinese who believed this in the 1980s and continuing into the 1990s, but with diminishing credibility as they witnessed the damage done to the former Soviet Union and its allies. Poles and other Middle-Europeans accepted hardship because they could see they were heading for membership of the European Community. They were also able to express their own culture after decades of Russian domination. Mao had successfully broken with the Soviet Union in 1959-61, using Khrushchev’s denunciation of Stalin as the main pretext, though there were other issues.
Khrushchev’s rule was the beginning of Soviet decline, after a spectacular rise under Stalin. Mao meantime managed to double the Chinese population and triple its economy, as well as acquiring space rockets and H-bombs without much outside help. All of this in a society where the gigantic rural hinterland had been stagnant for centuries. China’s rural economy was actually decaying under the pro-Western Chinese Republic that existed ineffectively from 1912 to 1948.
As it happened, the Olympics also saw the death of Hua Guofeng, chosen by Mao as his successor. Contrary to what the various respectful obituaries have been saying, I’d say he made a fundamental blunder when he allowed the arrest of what was then known as the ‘Shanghai Clique’ to be widened into a general criticism of the ‘Gang of Four’, who were to be blamed for excesses that happened during the Cultural Revolution. But you can’t easily criticise excesses without criticising the whole process, and thus undermining the status of all those who were raised up during that period. Hua could have limited the process to just a claim that the ‘Shanghai Clique’ had tried a coup in defiance of Mao’s plans for the succession. He could have offered forgiveness to any of their followers who’d accept this line. Instead he let that whole wing of the party be purged, meaning he was isolated on the party’s left as the next ‘domino’ to fall.
Whether Hua Guofeng’s other ideas were better or worse, the fact that he could make such a blunder suggests that China was better off without him. Deng Xiaoping avoided this error: criticism of Mao was kept very limited, mostly suggesting he went too far in the ‘Cultural Revolution’, now defined as the period 1966 to 1976. This is now accepted by most Western commentators – but is it accurate?
If it’s true that only Nixon could have gone to China, it’s also true that only Mao could have received him. Only Mao had the prestige to officially called off the long antagonism with the USA. He also allow a limited opening-up that Deng then continued, undoubtedly going much further than Mao planned, but with no sharp breaks. Western experts miss this: those closer to China can see things more clearly. A senior academic from Singapore put it thus:
“Mao Zedong, for all his flaws, was a great strategic thinker. He said China always had to deal with its primary contradiction and compromise with its secondary contradiction. When the Soviet Union became the primary contradiction, Mao settled with the US, even though it involved the humiliation of dealing with a power that then recognised Chiang Kai-shek as the legitimate ruler. The west must emulate Mao’s pragmatism and focus on its primary contradiction.
“Russia is not even close to becoming the primary contradiction the west faces. The real strategic choice is whether its primary challenge comes from the Islamic world or China.” [J]
“A culture of greed and rudeness among adults is contributing to the epidemic of knife and gun violence among teenagers, according to the government’s behaviour adviser…
“‘It’s connected to a violent sub-culture. But we bear some responsibility. Sometimes as adults we don’t model the behaviour we would want youngsters to follow. We live in a greedy culture, we are rude to each other in the street. Children follow that. You wonder what has gone wrong in these children’s lives. Of course the kids have a responsibility, but there are questions about what’s going on at home. Parents have a huge responsibility. Government doesn’t bring up children, parents do.’..
“Steer said that comprehensives had an unfair image as being at the heart of the violence in some teenagers’ lives. ‘I get incensed when I read impressions of comprehensives as in chaos. It’s not true. The majority are havens for their students from a disruptive society; 90% of parents say they love their kids’ schools.
“‘I’m not going to say that schools can’t be better, but it’s not true that schools are these disorderly places. They are dealing with problems that are coming off the streets.” [M]
Young male humans have a natural tendency to behave like a bunch of baboons. Human societies normally devote a lot of effort to controlling this, channelling it into channels that are harmless, sometimes useful. But in a fast-changing society, such cultural controls easily get discredited. There was little understanding of the need to support them, update them and regenerate as necessary, but never assume that the process will take care of itself. It doesn’t – rather, it ‘takes care of itself’ in the creation of a murderous gang culture, tribalism in an urban setting.
What you’ve got after the high hopes and radicalism of the 1960s and 1970s are young people with depressingly small ambitions. They are content to be feral humans living a marginal existence and often dying young. There is no ambition to take back control of their own society. Whatever ambitions they have involve dominating and exploiting people much like themselves.
It follows naturally from a belief in ‘Laissez-faire’, which could be translated as ‘let things drift’. This is fine if the drift is in a generally decent direction. But supposing it isn’t?
It is worth noting that ‘Laissez-faire’ was the key idea of the French ‘Economistes’ or Physiocrats, thinkers who advised the French monarchy in the decades before its disastrous collapse and the world-changing events of the French Revoliton. The French Revolution wasn’t at all what the Physiocrats had in mind: it was merely what actually happened.
The reality that the West is now re-discovering is that there is no civilisation without the state. People should not be so scared of it, the state is just people organised in a coherent manner. ‘Small government’ has been a nice slogan and also a falsehood. Mean government, yes, often a mindless cost-cutting that produces bigger expenses in the long run. Mad Cow disease is one case, caused because necessary health-checks were condemned as ‘red tape’. Or consider the recent fuss about lost or stolen government data. People get encouraged to try cost-cutting, but any fool can cut costs. The skill of a professional manager lies in knowing what can safely be cut or simplified. They may often go the opposite way, increase control and / or expenditure in an area that needs it.
Mean Britain, nasty unhappy kids. There seems no hope of Britons learning that lesson any time soon. As Labour fails to deliver, they turn mostly to the Tory Party, which favours much the same foolishness.
[A] Details from [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2008_Summer_Olympics_medal_count] and linked pages.
[B] [http://results.beijing2008.cn/WRM/ENG/INF/GL/95A/GL0000000.shtml], which gives the breakdown by Male / Female / Mixed.
[D] China ousts US as top Japanese market, [http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/938fdeb8-6fab-11dd-986f-0000779fd18c.html]
[E] China to overtake US as largest manufacturer, [http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/2aa7a12e-6709-11dd-808f-0000779fd18c.html]
[F1] Looking for Mao at the Olympics, [http://sports.yahoo.com/top/news?slug=ap-oly–wheresmao&prov=ap&type=lgns]
[G] Mentioned in Mark Leonard’s What Does China Think, among other sources. This is one of the better books on what’s currently happening in China.
[J] The west is strategically wrong on Georgia, By Kishore Mahbubani [http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/7709a0ec-6f17-11dd-a80a-0000779fd18c.html]
[K] Youth crime: Greedy, rude adults ‘fuelling teen violence’.
[L] Lots of Britons are feeling just that. See the BBC’s Have Your Say, [http://newsforums.bbc.co.uk/nol/thread.jspa?forumID=5263&edition=2&ttl=20080825155328]
[M] Youth crime: Greedy, rude adults ‘fuelling teen violence'[http://education.guardian.co.uk/schools/story/0,,2290376,00.html]