All posts filed under: World Affairs

A Misremembered Day of Infamy

Nothing illustrates better the extraordinary changes in America’s political culture than the almost furtive way in which the anniversary of Pearl Harbor has been marked. The surprise attack by the Japanese imperial navy on America’s Pacific Fleet 79 years ago—on December 7th, 1941—was barely commemorated this year in a nation convulsed by a deadly pandemic and the unprecedented effort by its president to steal an election. The exception to this general insouciance came in the tally of the honored dead compared with the gruesome numbers still being inflicted daily by the COVID-19 virus. (What’s more, as of this writing, the number of American COVID fatalities almost equals its Second World War combat toll.) In the public imagination, Pearl Harbor has become little more than an occasion to contextualize national grieving, a historical calamity that serves as a measure against our present difficulties. This shallow use of a hinge event in history has become typical of a nation that has begun to lose its sense of itself. This is evident in Americans’ diminished standards of conduct at home …

An Optimistic Outlook on 2021

The outlook, scientist Peter Turchin tells the Atlantic’s Graeme Wood, is bleak. Turchin thinks we are looking at another five years—or more likely a decade—of misery. And as 2020 draws to a close, modern civilization does appear to resemble a metaphorical dumpster fire. It really has been a terrible year, possibly the worst most people can remember. Every morning seemed to bring a new global damage report—an endlessly spreading pandemic, mounting death tolls, economies cratered by lockdowns, rising unemployment, racial inequality and civil unrest, spiraling political polarization, election turmoil in the United States, and bushfires in Australia. Countless people are ending the year feeling much further behind than they were on New Year’s Eve 2019. “Surely 2021 can’t be worse than 2020?” feels like wishful thinking. 2020 has felt particularly punishing, at least in part because the decade that preceded it was astonishingly hopeful and productive according to almost every metric of human progress. Extreme poverty was dramatically reduced, from 18 percent of the global population to just 8.6 percent. More than 158,000 people climbed …

Corruption: Greasing the Wheels of the World

One December evening in the late ’90s, I met a friend in a Moscow restaurant. I drank two zero-alcohol beers that night—an eccentric posture, in a Russian-Georgian restaurant—and then drove back to my borrowed flat in a car lent to me by my successor as the FT’s Moscow Correspondent. In Russia, no alcohol is permitted at all when driving—a law fashioned, it would seem, to allow the city’s GAI (Gosurdarstvennaya Aftomobilnaya Inspektsiya, or state traffic police) to supplement their low pay. As I was passing one of the new luxury hotels, a thick bundle of clothes propelled on boots and topped with a badged fur shapka waved his stick before my windscreen and motioned me to pull over. He told me to wind down my window, and stuck his head in. “Dikhnite!” (“Breathe!”) he instructed. Then he smiled, stepped back, saluted, and told me to get out of the car. He asked for my passport, and as he looked at it he told me I had been drinking. Yes, I admitted, but only zero-alcohol beer. …

The Videogame That Takes Us Inside the Hell of a Nazi-Run World

For almost 20 years, Hearts of Iron has been a prominent franchise in the videogame genre known as “grand strategy.” In these games, players don’t command individual characters or armies, but whole nations or even civilizations. In Hearts of Iron, which is now up to its fourth iteration, players lead nations and navigate them through (often fictional) conflicts, alliances, economics crises, and intrigues before and after World War II, exploring alternative historical narratives. What’s more, Paradox Interactive, the developer of Hearts of Iron 4, designed the game in a way that allows gamers to create their own customized versions, often called “mods,” which take the game into radically different timelines. By one count, more than 20,000 mods are available for Hearts of Iron. These include some that fall into the category of “total conversion modifications”—mods that are so ambitious that they effectively create entirely new game systems. A notable example is The New Order: Last Days of Europe, a huge project that crowdsourced the efforts of hundreds of volunteer fans. Since its conception in 2014, …

A Brief History of China’s One-Child Policy

Liu Fang once had the job of policing the women in her village. She made sure that none of them gave birth to a second child unless their first had been either female or disabled. Whenever she found an unauthorised pregnancy, she would urge the woman to abort. Today, however, Liu Fang’s job has transformed itself. Now she encourages local couples to have a second child as a matter of national urgency. The orders from her superiors in the Chinese Communist Party are very clear on this. In a dizzying volte-face, the world’s most murderously anti-natalist regime has become its most pleadingly pro-natalist. The Party launched its one-child policy in 1980, at a time when misplaced Malthusian fears could be found far beyond China’s borders. India’s government was experimenting with a forced sterilisation programme, the authorities in Singapore were running a campaign telling citizens to “Stop at Two,” and in South Korea they were insisting that “Two’s Too Much.”1 “The battle to feed humanity is over,” said biologist Paul Ehrlich in 1968. “By 1980 the …

A Loss of Direction and the Rise of Populisms

Since the end of World War II, we have mostly been living in the Age of Moderation—an epoch characterized by middle-of-the-road politics, in which a moderate Left and Right pursued partially overlapping policies. This long period configured our political compass toward compromise, but that compass now is swinging wildly, back and forth. The general consensus is that this loss of direction is due to the rise of populisms; a revolt against the elites in the name of the people. There are two competing populisms, both of which condemn the prevailing neoliberal order. Right-wing populists claim they ventriloquize the concerns of a religious, moral, and hardworking but silent majority. They are perceived by the political center as the primitive ghosts from an unenlightened past. Left-wing populists demand more progressive welfare-oriented policies, total “equality” and an end to “repression” under the label of democratic socialism. The political center views left-wing populism as a mortal danger to the delicate mixed economy. These two populisms are engaged in a bitter struggle, and both battle the mainstream moderate Left and …

Making the World Safe for Autocracy

Hong Kong has long ceased to fit the description given it by an envoy of Queen Victoria as a “barren rock.” Since British gunboats secured its jagged shore in the Opium Wars, it has transformed into a vibrant commercial outpost and a premier international metropolis. After nearly two centuries, the city now has new claimants as colonial overlords, who will undoubtedly wreck the special achievements of the crown colony and set new standards of ruination and decline. Hong Kong’s “one country, two systems” form of government autonomy received a lethal blow earlier this year when the annual session of China’s rubber-stamp legislature passed new national security laws that effectively prohibited dissent in the enclave. The draconian national security legislation allowed Beijing to bypass the territory’s own parliament and crack down on any activity it deems seditious. Hong Kong’s liberal culture and independent judiciary quickly began to suffocate under the weight of China’s rapacious interference. The Chinese Communist Party is now looking to crush the remnants of the old order. Beijing has announced that it will impose …

Totally Under Control—A Review

Alex Gibney’s Totally Under Control revisits a time, the legacy of which still haunts us. Spanning the period between January of 2020 and late spring of 2020, his new documentary traces the rise of the pandemic which has become a defining feature of our time. A New York Times headline on January 21st read “China Confirms New Coronavirus Spreads From Humans to Humans.” The full horror of mass deaths and economic lockdown hadn’t dawned on the world yet. Even in Wuhan there wasn’t full comprehension of what was to come. Nevertheless, the next day President Donald Trump was asked if he was worried about the pandemic and responded that “We have it totally under control.” Obviously, Trump was wrong. Totally Under Control is squarely focused on the bungling, mismanagement, and incoherence of the Trump administration. Gibney’s documentary is fundamentally a chronicle of the lopsided match between the COVID-19 pandemic and the Trump administration. As a point of contrast, Gibney focuses on the coherent and concerted efforts of America’s Pacific Rim ally, South Korea. The comparison …

Secular Modernity under Theocratic Assault

Professor Leszek Kołakowski, one of the great Polish intellectual dissidents from the Stalinist period, liked to say that when he debated with apologists for the system, he often found himself almost on the losing side. Kołakowski hastened to add that this fact did not owe to the superior arguments of his opponents. To the contrary. The arguments of his opponents were so foolish and antiquated that he’d simply forgotten what the original refutations were. A similar phenomenon can be registered in the West today with respect to heady accusations of blasphemy. With homicidal religious maniacs avenging the hurt feelings of the faithful, many liberal-minded people have taken to questioning fundamental republican norms and the basis of secular democracy. The recent events in France, which has again become the target of Islamist menace, provide a useful occasion to review the newly contested principles of the Enlightenment. This autumn has brought news of three separate Islamist attacks on French soil. It began with a knife attack last month in Paris outside the former office of the Charlie Hebdo magazine. A few weeks …

China’s Stateless Nations

I am from a city owned by a country that I don’t belong to. ~Frances Hui Maps of the global nation-state system show us a simplified picture of the world: “a totalizing classificatory grid,” as the political scientist Benedict Anderson famously put it.1 We need this grid for convenience, but we should always remember that it began as the colonial equivalent of an accountant’s ledger books. National maps provided reassurance to imperial powers that their territory was “bounded, determinate… countable.”2 The real world is much messier, and sometimes it changes in ways that no traditional map can show. China’s borders, for example, will soon bear no resemblance to reality. The Communist Party has begun expanding the concept of the nation, attempting to create a new type of global entity. But back home, large numbers of people within the country’s borders no longer see themselves as Chinese at all. From Kashgar to Causeway Bay, millions of citizens are beginning to define themselves in direct opposition to the status that appears on their passports. Today we find …