Archive for the ‘World affairs’ Category

China’s Covid Catastrophe

January 19, 2023

When Covid began three years ago in Wuhan, China’s regime acted ruthlessly to contain it, with draconian lockdown, testing, and quarantining rules. This did succeed — in China — but didn’t stop Covid from infecting the rest of the globe.

Most other countries initially tried to emulate China’s zero-Covid approach, but with less severity, so their disease rates were rather higher (especially in America, whose president repeatedly sabotaged anti-Covid efforts). China’s unelected regime preened that this proved its authoritarian model’s superiority, and indeed its civilizational superiority, over the supposedly dysfunctional, decadent, democratic West.

Which, eventually — armed with good vaccines, and medicines for treating the virus — evolved its approach to one of living with it, as a manageable chronic public health matter. While in contrast China’s approach crescendoed with its monster 2022 lockdowns in Shanghai and many other places.

But this sparked widespread protests, some even demanding President Xi Jinping’s ouster. He had postured as leading a “people’s war” against Covid. However, the great wall of lockdowns was crumbling in the face of Omicron’s much higher contagiousness, the virus breaking out all over. While the restrictions were crushing China’s economy. So in late 2022, the regime capitulated and abruptly ended virtually all anti-Covid controls.

Unfortunately, given Xi’s prior inflexible zero-Covid policy, China failed to prepare for transition to a different one. Failed to phase it in, to “flatten the curve” to avoid overwhelming medical infrastructure, which remains insufficient. Failed to stockpile medicines like Paxlovid, which were quickly running short even as the floodgates for the virus were suddenly opened.

And, mainly, failed to vaccinate enough people, especially the most vulnerable elderly; it was seen as unnecessary given the zero-Covid policy. Moreover, nationalistic pride limited the regime to using only Chinese-made vaccines, barring far more effective Western ones. So even those few Chinese who’ve been fully jabbed are not well protected.

Furthermore, the lockdowns meant most people never developed antibodies through exposure to the virus. Recalling the American aborigines wiped out by European diseases for which they lacked natural immunity.

So Covid is now horrifically raging through China. Initially the regime was reporting almost no deaths, but after criticism has fessed up to 60,000 in a month. Likely still a gross undercount. Independent estimates put the infection rate at 37 million daily, and a model constructed by The Economist projects up to 1-1/2 million deaths in the coming months. And note that this surge gives the virus more opportunity to mutate new, potentially more dangerous variations, threatening other countries.

The regime had previously justified the draconian lockdowns and prison-like quarantining by scaring people about Covid’s dangers. Now they’re pooh-poohing it as no worse than flu. Gone too is the “people’s war” rhetoric. Now it’s more like “You’re on your own.”

Prior to the reversal, China had ruthlessly censored any questioning of the government’s line. Now, in an Orwellian turnabout, anyone still mouthing the regime’s own prior talking points is branded a criminal traitor; while the previously banned viewpoint has become the approved one. The Chinese must feel whiplash.

So much for the superiority of their authoritarian system. The regime was happy to posture as devoted to its citizens’ health and safety — so long as that fit with contrasting itself against Western democracies. But when that ceased to be convenient they quickly jettisoned all concern about how many Chinese would sicken and die, while masking with lies their actual callous inhuman incompetence.

The only way to get a government that truly cares about people’s welfare is to have one accountable to them at the ballot box.

My book talk, “The Trump Shitstorm,” SAT. JAN. 14, 3 PM

January 8, 2023

Hi,

You’re invited to a talk and open discussion on my new book, THE AMERICAN CRISIS: Chronicling and Confronting the TRUMP SHITSTORM — 3 PM, next SATURDAY, Jan. 14 — at Bookhouse of Stuyvesant Plaza, 1475 Western Ave., Albany. 

I aim to make it fun, informative, and entertaining! 

Please come, I’d love to see you there.

The book is an edited chronological selection of blog essays, trying to understand and analyze events as they were unfolding — echoing the notion of journalism as “the first draft of history.”

The American Crisis: Chronicling and Confronting the Trump Shitstorm, by Frank S. Robinson; Verity Press International; 247 pages; $12.95 (+ $4.50 shipping in USA). Payment by check, credit card, Paypal or Zelle; 518-482-2639 

Reunifications and Republicans

December 22, 2022

Germany had long been divided, by a physical wall. It was opened, on November 9, 1989, and I’ll never forget seeing East Germans literally whooping with joy to finally pass through those gates. Political reunification then took less than a year — because people on both sides wanted it.

Chinese talk with irredentist obsessiveness about “reunification” with Taiwan. I put it in quotes because there’s nothing in common with the German reunification. Taiwan was never truly “unified” with China in the first place. Long held by Japan, it was part of China only briefly in 1945-49. When Mao’s Communists conquered the country by force of arms, they were stopped at Taiwan.

But in any case, the key fact is that “reunification” would elicit no joyful Taiwanese whooping. Instead the islanders, enjoying prosperity, freedom and democracy, know those would be crushed by Chinese rule, and totally oppose it.

Yet their wishes enter not at all into China’s fevered “reunification” dream. As though it’s all about some barren uninhabited island. A bizarrely inhuman mind bug.

For a while, the Chinese imagined sweet-talking Taiwan into an anschluss. The putative model being Hong Kong, run by Great Britain until 1997, when China reabsorbed it with the “one country two systems” line. Promising preservation of Hong Kong’s democratic and rule-of-law culture — for fifty years at least. A pledge China spectacularly broke in less than half that time, unleashing brutal repression. So now we no longer hear “one country two systems” regarding Taiwan. No more pretense of amicable “reunification.”

Instead China unapologetically insists upon a right to seize Taiwan by military force. And by what right? A cooked up theory of historic ties, to clothe conquest in moralistic garb. In which the human element doesn’t even factor. A deranged moralism.

A rational China might say, why not have two countries, us and Taiwan? We can be good buddies. Better for both. Somehow that happy thought never occurs to them.

This story parallels Russia’s Ukraine invasion. Which Putin tries to justify similarly, by invoking some historic cultural ties or shared destiny between the two nations (and lies about fighting Nazis). To this messianic narrative, the actual human beings inhabiting Ukraine are irrelevant.

In fact it’s even worse than that. Ukrainians’ resistance to Putin’s fantasy is not just disregarded, it’s punished. With untold human suffering, a holocaust of pain at the altar of the idea of Ukraine-Russian cultural solidarity!

And the great irony is that the two countries did have strong historical cultural affinities — could have been good buddies — until that was throughly smashed by Russia’s cruel crimes. So that today, Ukrainians, including indeed most of its many Russian speakers, have acquired a justifiably intense hatred toward Russia.

In a spirit of whataboutism I’ll acknowledge America’s own record is stained, as with our “Manifest Destiny” treatment of indigenous peoples. But that was in an earlier time when such things were standard behavior everywhere. I had hoped humanity had progressed beyond such crude might-makes-right (im)morality. In many ways we actually have, but bad ideas are sadly persistent. As indeed are (a small minority of) bad people.

We see a similar syndrome among today’s Republicans. Many of them believing they have some sort of moralistic entitlement to rule regardless of the wishes of the people they seeks to rule over. The “stolen election” lie is only a veneer; what they really think is that elections are anyway illegitimate if they don’t win. They should rule regardless. God said so.

I believe people have a right to decide their own destinies. God or no god.

Ai Weiwei and Bono on Art and Capitalism

December 13, 2022

No word triggers more nonsense thinking than “capitalism.” For centuries, when Christianity reigned, the ubiquitous bogeyman was Satan. As that superstition wanes, now it’s capitalism. (At least capitalism exists.)

China’s economy is in some ways the world’s most free-market capitalist — while its political system is an Orwellian dictatorship. China’s most famous artist is Ai Weiwei, who often pushes a thumb in that regime’s eye. But not his essay in a recent publication of The Economist he titled “Reclaiming art from capitalism.” Which is the bogeyman here.

A Martian reading the essay would never guess at the global confrontation between tyrannies like China’s and open democratic societies. Not mentioned as something art should be concerned with. No — it’s capitalism!

Ai complains that today’s global culture, very much including art, forms a “complete system” which “reflects the values and aesthetic tendencies of capitalism in every respect.” Characterized “by capitalism’s fervent advocacy of individual freedom, its encouragement of so-called ‘creativity’ and the idealisation of unfettered personal development . . . observed in the overwhelming tendency to consider art from a purely commercial perspective, neglecting spiritual concerns in favor of wealth accumulation.” While “societal injustices, regional inequalities, exploitation of the weak and unsustainable use of natural resources are ignored. By dodging these questions, contemporary art has become just a form of entertainment, detached from spiritual life. Art’s power . . . has been compromised. The outlook is dim.”

In other words, artists are selling out, sacrificing social concerns for filthy capitalist lucre.

What planet is he talking about? Is he on Mars? It sure doesn’t sound like he’s been to any modern contemporary art shows. Ones I’ve attended have been chock full of work concerned with exactly the kinds of “socially relevant” subjects Ai deems ignored. If anything, overbearingly so, in-your-face.

Unsurprisingly, Ai asserts that his own art fills the void he claims to identify: “concerned with life and death, the bigger sociopolitical context . . . all connected with the human condition and human dignity.” Well, bully for him. But to cast himself as some unique hero in that regard smacks of “mankind’s exaggerated self-esteem, extreme arrogance” which he later decries.

Rarely do voices flaying “capitalism” ever seriously offer an alternative. Meantime, a recent Las Vegas Review-Journal editorial discussed an interview with pop icon Bono, known for his anti-poverty crusading. It “may give progressives vertigo.” Quoting Bono: “I thought that if we just redistributed resources, then we could solve every problem. Now I know that’s not true.” Rather, “the off-ramp out of extreme poverty is, ugh, commerce; it’s entrepreneurial capitalism.”

Because it enables people to keep the fruits of their efforts — an incentive to work harder, producing more goods and services. Businesses make profits by providing things other people want.

Adam Smith nailed the point: “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.”

What we call capitalism (or a market economy) is not some concocted system, but simply the normal default mode for human interactions. A has something B wants or needs; B has something A wants; an object, or labor, or an intangible, etc. When A and B agree on its terms an exchange occurs. True, they don’t always have equal power. B may consent to work for A for pittance wages. But wouldn’t do so unless better off than not. Life is unfair; a market economy is how such unfairness is negotiated to maximize people’s aggregate welfare.

“Globalization has brought more people out of poverty than any other ism,” Bono said. “If somebody comes to me with a better idea, I’ll sign up.”

Myanmar’s Agony: “The Road Not Taken”

December 10, 2022

“The Road Not Taken” is a film (created on an iPhone) by Ko Pauk, of Myanmar (Burma), illustrating the country’s situation. My wife and I were invited to a screening at a local hotel, by Zaw Nay Myo, a gentle soul, poet, and former student leader in resistance to the military regime. He calls my wife his “teacher.” In the sizable audience, we seemed to be the only non-Burmese.

Backstory: Myanmar has been a military dictatorship since 1960. Ruling the country like Al Capone ruled Chicago. In 1990 they allowed an election, but were cluelessly shocked by an overwhelming victory by Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy. They annulled the vote and put her under house arrest. Eventually a new military leader, Thein Sein, sought to start Myanmar on a path to democracy.

Suu Kyi was freed and her party again won elections; she became the country’s de facto head. But Thein Sein was apparently sidelined by harder men; and when the NLD won another huge election victory, they called it fraudulent, staged a coup, retook complete power, and imprisoned Suu Kyi, in February 2021.

The film (a basically true story) starts at a small military encampment out in the bush. Despite a false scare of an “enemy” attack, the soldiers seem to be leading a quiet, even dull life. But I was thinking about their actual mission. Myanmar has been beset with endless ethnic and separatist conflicts; and notably, the army has prosecuted a horrifically vicious pogrom against the Muslim Rohingyas, whom the Buddhist majority refuses to accept as fellow citizens. The violence belies Buddhism’s peaceful image.

Then we meet a young woman and her pre-teen daughter. Turns out she’s married to one of those soldiers, a Captain, a contemplative fellow, seen reading a philosophy book. When word of the coup comes, the troop is ordered back to the city. The Captain phones with the good news that he’s coming home. She asks if he’ll be shooting anti-coup protesters. He says yes, if so ordered. But what if she and their daughter are among them? Then of course he wouldn’t shoot. She upbraids him for a lack of human empathy. The call ends unsatisfactorily. The Captain has something to think about. (Apparently he will join the rebels.)

Meantime we do see something of the regime’s ferocity toward the massive protests. Accompanied by a repeated song about their being heroes, giving their lives for democracy. One couldn’t help wondering if things could come to that here in America.

As the wife and daughter of a soldier, the pair become outcasts. Vendors in the marketplace, previously very friendly, now put up signs saying they don’t sell to soldiers or police. Seems awfully brave if anyone actually did that, given the army’s murderous brutality to anyone not knuckling under. Which is most Burmese. In fact the coup, and the repression, plunged the country into full civil war, with the pro-democracy forces linking up with some of the pre-existing insurgencies to fight the national army. It’s wrecking the economy. The soldiers don’t care.

The film ends with another military encampment — this time a rebel force — spiritedly going into battle.

It wasn’t immediately obvious, in each case, what side the depicted soldiers were on. It almost seemed they could be interchangeable.

Mankind’s worst-ever invention was the gun. No guns, no dictatorships. Imagine how much better off the whole world would be if guns did not exist.

Climate: We’re Cooked

November 13, 2022

Like the proverbial frog in the pot whose temperature slowly rises.

Yes (sigh) this is about climate change. But please read it anyway, it may provide some clarity.

There’s another big global climate talk-fest going on now in Egypt. The 2015 Paris agreement set an ambitious goal of limiting Earth’s temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Centigrade. That was a big victory for poorer nations, which stood to be harmed most by warming (being less equipped to cope with it). However, Paris included no commitments for specific action to achieve the goal.

Since then, the 1.5 degree goal has become a totemic gospel, dominating climate discussion. But — as argued in a recent analysis in The Economist, aptly titled “An Inconvenient Truth” — the chances of achieving 1.5 are zero (and have been for quite some time). It would have required massive reductions in carbon emissions, that simply are not happening. Rather than biting the bullet, we’ve barely been licking it. Consequently, at this point, 1.5 would require, going forward, reductions even more draconian. Which won’t happen either.

Because there’s no way to develop and deploy, fast enough, the technological fixes that would be required to reduce emissions enough without huge dislocations to our way of life, for which there is no public or political will. We’re talking here about the burning of fossil fuels, as in power generation, industrial processes, car and air travel; and there are many further ways we put carbon into the atmosphere, another big one being agriculture. Cow farts are actually a significant factor.

The 1.5 target was adopted even though 1.5 would entail pretty severe climate effects — but that seemed the outer limit for both what might be achievable and what might be more or less tolerable. Now it looks like 2 degrees is about the best we can hope for. And the difference between 1.5 and 2 is the difference between bad and very bad. While blowing past 2 looks increasingly likely.

What are the bad effects? A lot of ice will melt, dumping more water into the oceans, raising sea levels, and flooding low lying coastal cities (and some island countries). More and worse heat waves, obviously; a lot of places becoming simply uninhabitable. More and worse weather events, like hurricanes. More floods, droughts, forest fires. Big disruptions to agriculture and food production. All of which will send vast numbers of people on the move.

Part of the problem is feedback effects: warming creating conditions that cause more warming. For example, ice reflects a lot of sunlight back into space; less ice means less of that. And permafrost melting would release a lot more carbon-rich methane into the atmosphere. There’s danger of a tipping point, causing runaway warming. That’s apparently what happened to Venus, whose temperature now averages a toasty 867 degrees Fahrenheit.

I have argued forever that the zealots were misguided to insist on emissions reductions exclusively, because reducing them enough was a pipe dream. And even if we cut emissions to zero tomorrow, rising temperatures would still be baked in, due to the carbon already in the atmosphere.

We have three main other options. One is carbon capture and storage — sucking it out of the atmosphere. The technology exists. So far, the amount being done is piddling. However, scaling this up to where it would make a difference would be a colossal and colossally costly undertaking.

Second, there’s geoengineering — action to actually lower temperatures. The best known method would mimic the effect of volcanoes — which do periodically reduce temperatures (remember 1816, the “year without a summer”) by throwing a lot of particles into the upper atmosphere that deflect sunlight. This would be problematical and controversial for a host of reasons, and it too would be a gargantuan undertaking.

Both carbon removal and geoengineering would take many years, if not decades, to be deployed at anything near the scale needed.

That leaves the third course — adaptation. Measures to anticipate and cope with higher temperatures. Like building sea walls to protect cities against rising waters. Some places (Venice, for example; the Netherlands, historically) already do this. I’m skeptical that makes sense in the long term; but there are many other things we can do. The Economist article shows how much is actually being done already, although much more is needed.

The idea that humanity is suicidally wrecking the planet is over-the-top. What we have done is what we had to do, utilizing the planet’s resources in order to make ever better lives for generations of people. Of course it was no free lunch, and now we must pay the price. We will pay it.

We will not go extinct. We are the most adaptable of species. Coming out of steamy Africa, humans accommodated to living in the Arctic, and a vast array of other different climates. And that was without the benefit of all the scientific knowledge and technology we’ve acquired since. We will cope with a warmer planet.

As long as it’s not another Venus.

Iran: Theocracy Hypocrisy

November 4, 2022

Decrying Iran’s tyranny, and rooting for the women protesters, is facile. But two points:

One, Iran is seemingly a special case among the world’s dictatorships — a theocracy, rule in the name of religion. However, that’s just the regime’s cover story for what is in reality plain old autocracy, its guys (and they’re all male) ruling not to serve God but themselves; not by grace of God but guns.

Part of their pretend-piety is enforcing a stringent female dress code, putatively to protect against otherwise uncontrolled male libidos. (Western men aren’t unhinged by seeing gals’ hair, but never mind.)

Women are protesting after one was killed for a headscarf lapse. Note that the Koran merely speaks of dressing modestly, with all the extreme rules a later invention, to keep women down. Which goes way beyond clothing. Women are subject to suffocating restrictions in all aspects of life — even sometimes including who they marry.

Iran’s theocrats exploiting religion for self-aggrandizing power is hypocrisy enough. But the hypocrisy goes ballistic when women are brutalized with torture and rape to enforce a dress code supposedly to protect them. Yes, many are being raped by their captors. Rape in the name of protecting their sacralized virginity. Isn’t rape against the koran? Will anyone be punished — like those women are?

Some religious believers are sincere, even virtuous. But those many who exploit religion for self-serving ends never are. Religion is all too apt, as in Iran, to empower bad people to act badly. Religion and hypocrisy are blood brothers.

Which leads me to Point Two. America must guard against this. We are full of people who actually want us to be not a democracy but a theocracy. A majority would never accede; but the majority be damned (literally) in their eyes. Willing to use undemocratic means to get their way. That’s how they’ve already gotten a Supreme Court that’s smashing down our wall of separation between church and state.

Iran’s theocracy came in through violent revolution. I once thought The Handmaid’s Tale could never actually happen in America. But in a sequel, author Margaret Atwood explains how her fictional theocracy arose simply by a violent coup. Today I’m less sure it can’t happen here.

Ukraine: Russia’s Dirty Bomb Warning

October 26, 2022

Russia’s Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu has warned that Ukraine will use a “dirty bomb.” That’s a conventional explosive that spews radioactive contamination. And Russia has insisted on a UN session to address this alleged threat.

Ukraine’s allies have denounced it as a preposterous lie. Yet it is very scary — because it warns of dirty bomb use by Russia. Laying the groundwork for doing it while claiming it was the other side. A standard Russian ploy called “mirroring.” (Like Trump trying to steal the election while screaming that Democrats were stealing it.)

Unleashing a dirty bomb might seem a crazy thing to do. As with Russia’s invasion in the first place. A dirty bomb’s military impacts would actually be minimal, possibly even negative for Russia, limiting its own troops’ scope of operations. We’re told they’re already being outfitted with anti-radiation gear (which if true would raise the likelihood of a dirty bomb attack). So for dubious military advantage, Russia would be paying hugely in international opprobrium. And couldn’t seriously expect anyone to believe Ukraine responsible.

However, none of that is the point. To the contrary, what is the point is the action’s craziness itself. Blaming Ukraine is intended to be disbelieved, to show us what a badass we’re up against. Like in a game of chicken, where you try to make the other guy blink, by convincing him you’re crazier than he is.

As if we still needed convincing. But it won’t work. From the outset Putin calculated that a blitzkrieg would cause Ukrainians to just fecklessly fold. Instead it stiffened their resolve — newly instilling a national sense of purpose far beyond what existed before.

It was also, from the outset, a war of sadism. To inflict so much pain that Ukrainians couldn’t stand it. That, rather than any actual military objectives, guided so much of Russia’s actions; aimed less at Ukraine’s army than at the civilian population. Especially with a conventional military victory for Russia looking increasingly impossible. Hence now its effort to destroy Ukraine’s energy infrastructure, to give its people a freezing winter. Here too Putin’s cynical view of human nature misled him; with no idea how strong and resilient people can actually be, when put to the severest test.

Those who think he’s bluffing about using nukes should ponder the “crazier than you” model. He’s pointedly said that the nuclear weapons taboo was already broken, by America, in 1945. Though more correctly it was 1945 that cemented the never-again taboo, that held ever after. Until now.

A “crazier than” strategy’s logic can require you to actually do the crazy thing. A dirty bomb may not technically be a “nuclear weapon;” but that in fact heightens the danger of Russia using it. Because besides denying responsibility, Putin can also deny it breaks the taboo. Even while it certainly, at least, would be the most concrete step toward breaking it since 1945. The hymen would no longer be intact.

Meantime — Republicans have signaled that their Congressional control after this election will mean blocking further U.S. support for Ukraine. I’d call that a “dirty bomb” too.

Chinese Exceptionalism: the Mandate of Heaven, and Political Legitimacy

October 23, 2022

Xi Jinping has started a third term as China’s ruler.

Not “elected.” While democracy has achieved such moral cachet that even the worst dictators (like Putin) pretend to hold “elections,” China remains a notable exception. And, as Francis Fukuyama stresses in his book The Origins of Political Order, although rule of law generally circumscribed even Europe’s most powerful past monarchs, that was never true in China, whose Emperors reigned with no constraint.

Mao too ruled as an essentially unrestrained autocrat. The bloody “Cultural Revolution” (1966-76) was his final effort to crush all opposition. After Mao’s excesses, Deng Xiaoping did establish at least an orderly system, with leaders emerging from the Communist party’s highest echelon, accountable to it, and limited to two five-year terms. This held until Xi Jinping came along. And the third term decision was not collective; no Chinese functionary can oppose Xi without the direst consequences. He too now rules without constraint. (Also contrary to post-Mao practice, no next-in-line has even been named.)

China does have a written constitution, which means nothing. The Communist party actually rejects “constitutionalism” as a wicked Western idea, and conceives itself as the supreme authority. (And today, for “party,” read “Xi.”)

And what confers such authority? Western monarchs invoked “the divine right of kings,” claiming their power came from God. (In truth, it was one guy muscling out rivals.) China’s similar concept, from BC times, has always been “the mandate of Heaven.” Another mystical source for political legitimacy. But note that China never had traditional religions akin to ours with supernatural powers. So “Heaven” does not equate to God. Fukuyama translates “the mandate of Heaven” as invoking “the grand order of things.” Thus, a ruler’s ruling by that mandate means it’s just the way things ought to be. Confirmed by the very fact of rulership. Once you’ve got it.

A tautological post-hoc rationalization for power, not a legitimate source for it. We’re here because we’re here because we’re here.

Mao more candidly theorized that “power comes from the barrel of a gun.” Most Chinese emperors inherited the “mandate of Heaven” from their fathers; but periodically a dynasty was overthrown, typically by violence and upheaval, the next ruler fighting his way to the throne. Another route to the mandate. Xi got there by political infighting, but it wasn’t exactly nonviolent — numerous rivals wound up in prison.

It may seem odd that China never developed in a rule-of-law direction, or with governmental accountability, since as Fukuyama also details, China was actually the first country to build an otherwise recognizably modern state, with a rational, functionally organized administrative system, not kinship-based, thousands of years ago. But Fukuyama suggests that the lateness of Western state building, compared to China’s, actually explains the subsequent political liberty: “precocious state building [like China’s] in the absence of rule of law and accountability simply means that states can tyrannize their populations more effectively. Every advance in material well-being and technology implies, in the hands of an unchecked state, a greater ability to control society and to use it for the state’s own purposes.” Thus China’s history of extreme repression.

Another key concept in Fukuyama’s book is that democracy and accountability took hold only where major power loci in a society were roughly in balance, none able to dominate, forcing them to accommodate each other. So perhaps one reason for democracy’s recent retreat is the ability of one power — generally, a strongman and his gang getting control of state apparatus — to dominate after all, trumping the claims of rival groups. (Republicans aim for this.) China has never had a coherently organized societal power locus outside of the state (like, for example, the Church in the West), to challenge its pre-emptive control.*

This may explain Xi’s recent assault on the tech sector, and titans like Jack Ma, knocking them down a few notches. It seemed like economic self-harm for China. But it forestalls any challenge to Xi’s power from that quarter.

One thing I’ve learned from history is that nothing is ever inevitable. Always dependent upon the decisions and choices humans make. Many millions who work as cogs in China’s crushing party machine do it with zeal, believing it a Very Good Thing. Some may realize it’s not, but support it to survive and feather their own nests. The world is full of such.

In fairness, the “mandate” actually claimed by China’s Communist party is this deal with the populace: you let us rule, and we give you stability and prosperity. Maybe understandable given China’s ghastly history in those regards.

And the party has delivered. It’s also true that rulership accountable to no one but itself can often get things done more efficiently (ruthlessly) than “messy” democracy.** Yet “Man does not live by bread alone;” freedom and democracy are valued by people too, as integral to quality of life. And the Chinese are paying, for what the regime gives them, a very high price in freedom.

Just how high a price received a bone-chilling look in a July essay in The Economist about Hong Kong repression (“Anatomy of an Erasure”). And is it a price Chinese must necessarily pay for their stability and prosperity? Those are provided abundantly in most Western societies without sacrificing freedom and democracy. Indeed, the latter have a high correlation with stability and economic strength.

Surely the Western model offers citizens a far better deal. But China’s people are not given the choice.

* Note too that European kings would sometimes side with an emerging bourgeoisie against aristocrats, seeing the latter as greater threats to their power; thus too promoting rule of law development.

** Though Xi’s extreme “zero Covid” policy (like his tech bashing) is a huge economic detriment, with widespread lockdowns. China could get out of that box with a big vaccination push, but Xi refuses.

Seeing “Hamilton” in London

October 16, 2022

Calling London an international city is inadequate. It’s like a city with no nationality at all; no native tongue, everyone speaking their own.

“Does anyone speak English in this town?” I said to my wife as we made our way through dense throngs at the Portobello street market. Searching for our daughter Elizabeth, now settled down in London, after getting a Masters Degree at University College London, and then a good job in her chosen field. This one week trip was mainly to see her and, for the first time, Sam Brown, her French-English partner of two plus years.

We’d agreed to meet at Portobello at 11:00. But our wakeup call didn’t come and we’d overslept till ten, then found our overnight phone recharge had failed too, so we couldn’t get Elizabeth’s message specifying a meeting point. We decided we’d best head out, not realizing how huge Portobello had grown in the three decades since our last visit. Now an amazing endless array of vendors selling anything and everything. But with our eyes peeled for Elizabeth, we didn’t take in much merch.

Finally got the phone recharged during lunch at a Thai eatery (delicious!) and soon did meet up with our offspring. Meantime we had already met, Sam, who passed inspection with flying colors. They seem well-matched, a great couple.

We’d timed our trip to coincide with one by Harry Lee, the new Executive Director of the Somaliland school project we’ve been involved with, and Board chair Andra Ehrenkranz. Soft-spoken Harry’s been with it from the start and is just terrific.

We had two dinners, one with some past teachers, the other with some student alums. In between, a meeting with Mo (for Mohammad) Ali, a young member of parliament from Wales, born in Somaliland, and still much engaged with that country. He’s a very personable fellow.

We met at the Conservative Party’s campaign HQ, greeted by a bust of Margaret Thatcher; then passed through a boiler room operation with a few dozen desks with screens and staffers; into the Thatcher Conference Room, sporting busts of Churchill and David Cameron, overseen by a giant modernist portrait of a very fierce looking Maggie.

A big quote from her on the wall: “The problem with socialism is that eventually you run out of other people’s money.” Ha ha. I thought: is that your best shot? No wonder the party is headed for an historic defeat. (At Westminster we saw huge loud anti-Tory demonstrations.)*

We didn’t discuss any of that with Ali; instead, Somaliland economic and political developments, and their import for the schools project, particularly for raising its profile, and of course funding. Afterward that discussion continued with Harry and Andra at lunch. I had fish-and-chips — but oh what a plate, the fish a foot long, really scrumptious.

I came away with a renewed feeling that Therese and I are actually doing something making a difference for people, and for Somaliland’s future.

London’s Underground system is excellent. Trains long and frequent, thus never overstuffed. On one trip I sat across from a thirtyish gal whose face I studied because it looked so quintessentially British, and I was puzzling over what made it so. She (like most riders) was looking at her phone, with mild pleasure. Then suddenly she displayed intense anguish and started crying, wiping away tears. As we exited, I leaned over and said, “Whatever it was, I feel very sorry for you.” And she gave me a huge smile.

We also walked for miles and miles, with the help of a wonderful map app that guided us like GPS (and Elizabeth who was a terrific tour guide). Saw some great, mind-bending art at the Tate Modern; had an afternoon tea river cruise; toured the Churchill war room and museum; John Keats’s house; Regents Park, including four hours at its zoo; Hampstead Heath with a tour of old master paintings in Kenwood House; Westminster Abbey; and the British Museum, seeing once again some old friends, the colossal pair of Assyrian human-headed winged lions, excavated by Layard, that guarded King Ashurbanipal’s throne room at Nimrud in the Ninth Century BCE, which still take my breath away.

Our last night we had dinner with Elizabeth and Sam at a Japanese restaurant before we all saw “Hamilton.” Probably the last Americans who hadn’t seen it, and doing so in Britain added piquancy. It lived up to the hype. After the opening sequence I asked myself, can that energy level be sustained? It pretty much was. I enjoyed it greatly with the benefit of being deeply versed in the history; but wondered how many American viewers, let alone Brits, could fully follow it.

As usual, what I enjoyed most on this trip was relishing what a terrific wife I’ve got.

* But I’m actually a Thatcher fan: https://rationaloptimist.wordpress.com/2013/04/08/margaret-thatcher-the-ladys-not-for-turning/