All posts filed under: World Affairs

The China Syndrome Part II: Transmission and Response

Note: This is the second part of a four-part series of essays looking in detail at China’s role in the COVID-19 pandemic. Part One looked at the circumstances surrounding the initial outbreak; this part looks at the discovery of human-to-human transmission and the immediate response; Part Three investigates allegations that the pandemic began in a “wet market” or that the virus escaped from a lab in Wuhan; Part Four examines charges that the Chinese have falsified their pandemic data.  There is evidence that, in mid-January, Chinese officials withheld suspicions that sustained human-to-human transmission was occurring. Nevertheless, most of the claims about Chinese mendacity and its implications have been wildly exaggerated. A useful account of the ways in which the local health authorities delayed the release of crucial information was published on February 5th, 2020, in China News Weekly, but apparently deleted from their website almost immediately. Fortunately, it was archived and eventually translated by China Change, a website created by Chinese human rights activists in the US. A fair-minded story published by Associated Press also illuminates the role played by …

The China Syndrome Part I: Outbreak

Note: This is the first part of a four-part series of essays looking in detail at China’s role in the COVID-19 pandemic. This part looks at the circumstances surrounding the initial outbreak; Part Two looks at the discovery of human-to-human transmission and the immediate response; Part Three investigates allegations that the pandemic began in a “wet market” or that the virus escaped from a lab in Wuhan; Part Four examines charges that China falsified its pandemic data. Introduction According to a poll conducted in France, Italy, Spain, the UK, and the US at the end of March, a majority of the population in each of those countries believes that China is at least somewhat to blame for the pandemic and, in both the UK and the US, a plurality believe it’s significantly to blame. Another survey taken in the US at the end of April found that a plurality of people believe that SARS-CoV-2 was probably or definitely created in a lab. At the beginning of that month, another poll had found that a majority of Americans believed that China …

Lebanon’s Malignant State

Some 30 years after the end of its dirty civil war, Lebanon has cultivated a well-developed preference for discretion. One can only imagine the collective gasp of its political class last week when a spark in a ramshackle warehouse set off 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate stored in Beirut’s port since 2014. Scores were killed and thousands injured in Lebanon’s capital city. The sound of the blast was heard across the Mediterranean as far away as Cyprus, where some thought they had suffered an earthquake. The figurative shock waves, laying bare the ineptitude and indifference of a malignant state, will reach much further. After the chemical explosion showered Beirut in broken glass, it wasn’t long before public demonstrations flared up, in a reprise of last autumn’s protests against Lebanon’s endemic dysfunction. So overpowering was the popular revulsion against the political culture of criminality and neglect of the country’s needs in 2019 that it required both semi-official violence and a cosmetic change in the government to quell. The same ingredients of another prolonged protest movement are once again …

The Russia Report

A report released this July by the UK’s House of Commons Intelligence and Security Committee is more concerning than its relatively restrained prose appears to indicate. It shows us that Russia is an enemy determined to undermine liberal values and institutions, and it exposes a galaxy of details of Russian malignity—an alarming reminder of just how deep and how dangerous the threat is. Much of the report rehearses what is already known about Russian efforts to hack into democratic states’ networks to influence citizens’ voting, and to produce results which will benefit Russia’s foreign strategy—that is, whatever is bad for the West is considered good for Russia. These hacks included intervention in the 2014 referendum on Scottish Independence, where a vote for secession would have meant the break-up and weakening of the United Kingdom—a plus for Russia denied by a substantial vote to remain in the union, at 55–45 per cent. Then, in 2017, hackers entered the networks of the new French party, République En Marche, and leaked a large number of emails which were …

Chinese Science Fiction’s Disaster Dystopias

The Great China dream will replace all private dreams. ~Ma Jian, China Dream In Ma Jian’s new novel, the protagonist, Ma Daode, may be a corrupt, womanizing local official, but he is a corrupt, womanizing local official with a mission. His goal is to develop a drug that will allow President Xi Jinping’s vision of a glorious Chinese future to dominate not only citizens’ daily lives but their sleeping hours as well. This is his utopian quest. The China dream, Ma Daode suggests, “is not the selfish, individualist dream chased by Western countries. It is a dream of a people, a dream of the entire nation, united as one and gathered together into an invincible force.” This mindless worship of hierarchy and control permeates his thinking. China Dream was published in 2018, three years before the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party, and it provides insights into the Middle Kingdom that are becoming harder to find as control of local media tightens. It is a product of the “golden age” of Chinese science …

Twilight of Democracy—A Review

A review of Twilight of Democracy by Anne Applebaum, Doubleday (July 2020), 224 pages. Historian and journalist Anne Applebaum’s new book The Twilight of Democracy sees a democratic world, as Rupert Brooke saw his world at the onset of World War I, “grown old and cold and weary.” So weary of democracy’s institutions and processes, so coldly contemptuous of the liberals of the Left and Right who administered them, that many of those who previously supported these central pillars have instead embraced one or another form of right-wing fundamentalism. This may manifest as nostalgic yet virulent nationalism, or reactionary Catholicism, or an invocation of Great Leader-ism which is, she writes, “at once serious and unserious.” Illustrative of the last of these types, she says, is Santiago Abascal, the leader of the Spanish anti-immigrant party Vox, who was filmed riding a horse to the soundtrack of The Lord of the Rings—unserious, because plundering popular culture for the purposes of rousing self-glorification is so obviously crass; serious, because it is rousing, nonetheless. The title of Applebaum’s book communicates the seriousness …

The Passing of the Second Imperial Age

In the half-millennium of modern European imperialism, from the Spanish and Portuguese in the 16th century to the withdrawing roar of the British and French empires in the 20th, there was one truth on which all of these powers, often at war with each other, could agree. That was, land which could be designated terra nullius (“no-one’s land”) could be taken—indeed, had to be taken—by one of the powers, or another power would get it. So empires conquered large swathes of territory in Africa, India, the Middle East, South-East Asia, North America, and Australasia, most of which was regarded as unoccupied. They did so in pursuit of precious metals and stones, for settlement and defence (of other lands already seized), for points of supply to their ships, in order to demonstrate their power, and—the most cited reason in polite society, even more polite if put into French—for the mission civilatrice or the mission religieuse. That last of these—the obligation to deliver Christianity to uncivilised heathens—is sometimes dismissed as merely the hypocrisy of pious icing layered over …

The Room Where It Happened—A Review

A review of The Room Where It Happened—A White House Memoir by John Bolton, Simon and Schuster (June 2020), 592 pages. Donald Trump’s White House is fast approaching the end of its first term. Meanwhile, the consequences of the administration’s early insouciance about the onset of COVID-19 are manifest across a country experiencing a ferocious new surge in cases. The US President offers his leadership to those who would scrap the sheltering and distancing rules, characterising them as the imposition of a despised bureaucracy—evidence, as one protestor put it, of a “Communist dictatorship.” Trump is, in most moods, fond of Communist dictators, as China’s Xi Jinping and North Korea’s Kim Jong-Un have been pleased to discover. The head of his National Security Council (NSC) from April 2018 until September last year, John Bolton, fears and hates them. These two men, both in their early 70s, were yoked together for 18 months, a period that ended in predictable acrimony, and which has now produced a memoir from Bolton. Several books have already sought to illuminate the malign …

From India’s Himalayan Border to Our Local Cell Networks, It’s Time to Push Back Against China

High in the Himalayan mountains, Chinese soldiers ambushed Indian troops this week, resulting in a brutal battle on the Indian side of their shared border. Twenty Indians were killed, while China won’t disclose its losses. It was the deadliest confrontation on the border in over 40 years. As a result, some Indian strategists are openly discussing recognizing Taiwan and providing more visibility to the Dalai Lama, state-owned telecoms are blocking Chinese equipment from 4G upgrades, and millions of Indians downloaded an app that helps remove Chinese apps from their phones (before Google removed it). All of this comes at a time when much of the world remains angry at China’s leaders for their initial handling of the COVID-19 crisis. This week’s apparent provocation is part of a larger recent pattern with China. From the South China Sea, to Taiwan, to Hong Kong, Beijing has been seeking to change facts on the ground in a way that benefits its own strategic and economic interests. In a recent Atlantic Council discussion of the India-China border issue (convened …

The Battle for Russian Journalism

Russia is a heavily authoritarian state, where the ruling class serves itself first and best. The country’s politics revolve almost entirely around the figure of Vladimir Putin, who has been the nation’s president (with one four-year break) since 2000. Closely researched books—such as Putin’s Kleptocracy by the late academic Karen Dawisha, and Putin’s People by the journalist Catherine Belton—convincingly expose his personal corruption and the culture of theft among his closest associates. These people see themselves, in Belton’s phrase, as “anointed custodians,” and have decided that their mission to restore at least part of the empire of which Russia was shorn by the break-up of the USSR entitles them to great power and rewards. Nevertheless, Putin’s Russia is not Xi Jinping’s China nor Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s Egypt—there does exist some space for civil society. It is more like an upscaled nuclear-armed version of Viktor Orbán’s Hungary. An opposition exists, but it cannot win. The leader may be criticised, but not replaced (except, in Putin’s case, when he arranges it as a manoeuvre to extend his reign). Protests are …