Wednesday, 31 December 2014

What China's Blocking of Gmail Has To Do With World War I

"It is a matter of common knowledge, one which a man must be blind and deaf not to understand, that for many years Germany, intoxicated by her success in war and by her increase of wealth, has regarded the British Empire with eyes of jealousy and hatred," wrote Arthur Conan Doyle in The German War, a political essay published in 1914, shortly after the beginning of World War I. He was already a world-known bestseller author thanks to his Sherlock Holmes stories, and he used the notoriety of his public persona in order to convince the British people that the war had been caused by Germany alone, and that it was a just war. The logic behind Doyle's argument was that Germany, a newly industrialised and rich nation, was envious, ungrateful and embittered. Britain - so went Doyle's reasoning - had helped Germany politically and economically, but had been met with ingratitude by her former ally. 

Until the twentieth century had turned [the Germans] had no possible cause for political hatred against us. In commerce our record was even more clear. Never in any way had we interfered with that great development of trade which has turned them from one of the poorest to one of the richest of European States. 
Our markets were open to them untaxed, whilst our own manufactures paid 20 per cent in Germany. The markets of India, of Egypt, and of every portion of the Empire which had no self-appointed tariff, were as open to German goods as to British ones. Nothing could possibly have been more generous than our commercial treatment. No doubt there was some grumbling when cheap imitations of our own goods were occasionally found to oust the originals from their markets. Such a feeling was but natural and human. 
But in all matters of commerce, as in all matters political before the dawn of this century, they have no shadow of a grievance against us ... And yet they hated us with a most bitter hatred, a hatred which long antedates the days when we were compelled to take a definite stand against them. In all sorts of ways this hatred showed itself—in the diatribes of professors, in the pages of books, in the columns of the Press. Usually it was a sullen, silent dislike. Sometimes it would flame up suddenly into bitter utterance ...
And yet this bitter antagonism was in no way reciprocated in this country. If a poll had been taken at any time up to the end of the century as to which European country was our natural ally, the vote would have gone overwhelmingly for Germany. “America first and then Germany” would have been the verdict of nine men out of ten. But then occurred two events which steadied the easy-going Briton, and made him look more intently and with a more questioning gaze at his distant cousin over the water. Those two events were the Boer War and the building of the German fleet. The first showed us, to our amazement, the bitter desire which Germany had to do us some mischief, the second made us realise that she was forging a weapon with which that desire might be fulfilled."

One hundred years have elapsed since Arthur Conan Doyle wrote these words. Germany is now a peaceful, democratic country, and Western Europe has - for the time being, at least - cast aside the old national hatreds, territorial and maritime disputes. However, the dynamic of British-German conflict is not simply a forgotten chapter of history. It is a lesson, an important lesson that should be learnt. 

Apparently, the blocking of Gmail in the PRC has little to do with the events of 1914-1918. But, as Doyle's text shows, they have one thing in common: the dynamic of Sino-American relations resembles very much that of British-German relations one hundred years ago. 

At the beginning of the 20th century, Germany was a "parvenu" which, within a few decades, had turned "from one of the poorest to one of the richest of European States". Germany pursued a protectionist policy of industrialisation, often manufacturing "cheap imitations" of British goods, 'self-strengthening' and arming. Britain, on the other hand, was a declining superpower, but with naval and military presence all over the world, it was a country that had already fallen into the trap of liberalism, opening up her market to foreign competition in the name of the 'free market'. The unsolved contradictions of this explosive situation led to a catastrophic war. In 1875 Britain imported only 8% of her steel. By 1913 she imported 45%, and most of it came from Germany. The interdependence of Britain's and Germany's economies not only did not prevent a war, but it had created a psychological rivalry that was exacerbated by the conflict. 

The parallels with Sino-American tensions are obvious. And the fate of Google is a symbol of the contradictions of this complex relation. 

In a recent editorial, China's state-owned Global Times wrote: "Western media pointed the finger at Chinese authorities immediately, accusing them of strengthening its cyber censorship. This is far too simple a hypothesis. It should be noted that Google voluntarily quit the mainland market in 2010. The issue at heart is to what extent Google is willing to obey Chinese law, on which China's attitude is steadfast ... As is widely known, China has to keep strengthening its national security while it opens up to the West. We cannot avoid issues like Internet and ideological security when dealing with large IT companies from the West ... If the China side indeed blocked Gmail, the decision must have been prompted by newly emerged security reasons. If that is the case, Gmail users need to accept the reality of Gmail being suspended in China. But we hope it is not the case. We only need to have faith that China has its own logic in terms of Internet policy and it is made and runs in accordance with the country's fundamental interests."

This excerpt from the paper's article only shows one thing: lack of transparency. Not even one of the biggest Communist newspapers knows if and why Gmail has been blocked in the PRC. That's because legal accusations against Google have not been formalised. This contradicts the paper's comparison with Google's conflicts with other states such as the European Union. While it is true that Google has had legal problems in various countries, its services have never been arbitrarily suspended without notice and formal charges. 

The Global Times argues that we "need to have faith" in China's logic, that "newly emerged security reasons" might have prompted Beijing to block Gmail, that Google has to "obey Chinese laws", etc. These are very weak and vague arguments that provide no evidence but ask a leap of faith, as if the CCP was not a party but a god. 

Furthermore, laws made by a one-party dictatorship are not morally binding, especially if they force companies to practice censorship (which is the reason why Google quit mainland China in 2010 in the first place). Let us remember that the anti-Jewish laws in Nazi-Germany and the apartheid in South Africa were also "legal". But there is no rule of law if the law is made by one party, one king or one "race", without public scrutiny, free discussion and the possibility to change the law. 

Tuesday, 30 December 2014

Chinese Nationalism and the End of Hong Kong

As the Umbrella Revolution unfolded and thousands of Hong Kong students and activists occupied various streets of the city demanding genuine universal suffrage, the leaders of the Chinese Communist Party in Beijing and their allies in Hong Kong looked in dismay and astonishment, unable to understand what was happening. They condemned the democracy movement, which they considered an illegal act of subversion aided by foreign forces. Yet they didn't seem to take the true motives behind this popular protest seriously.

If they had analysed these motives, they would have soon discovered that there are plenty of reasons why the people of Hong Kong might be dissatisfied with the status quo created by the 'one country, two systems' model. One of them and, in my opinion, the most important one, lies in the ideologisation of society which the Communist state considers an integral part of its 'socialist' system, and which it is trying to extend to Hong Kong in subtle ways.

Just like every Communist regime, the CCP government, too, aims not only at monopolising the armed forces and the government, but also at entering into the most private sphere of every individual: the mind, the heart, and the conscience. Although the liberalisation of the People's Republic of China (PRC), brought about by the era of reform and opening up launched by Deng Xiaoping, has reduced the interference of the state in the private lives of the common citizen, the Party has by no means renounced its claim to have the monopoly of the 'truth'. To a certain extent, indoctrination is now even more successful than it used to be under Mao Zedong, because it is backed up by an unprecedented improvement in the country's material progress and international prestige.

The fact that the Beijing government intends to stick to ideology as a tool for political and social mobilisation is increasingly clear. For example, President Xi Jinping has recently urged the universities to "shoulder the burden of learning and researching the dissemination of Marxism", in a move to tighten ideological control on the institution that is most likely to encourage free and critical thinking. Another example is a campaign launched in the city of Wuhan; citizens have been urged to "internalize core socialist values through mandatory recitation sessions around the city, as a part of the efforts to bid for the title of 'national civilized city'." The desire of the Communist leadership to insulate the country ideologically from the rest of the world led it to block foreign websites and e-mail providers, including Gmail

Saturday, 27 December 2014

Taiwan Plane Crash - A Tragedy That Could Have Been Avoided?

On July 23 a TransAsia Airways plane crashed near Magong Airport, on Taiwan's Penghu islands. The flight number GE222 was flying from Kaohsiung to Penghu, but it crashed in Xixi, a town near Magong Airport, at around 19:00 local time. 48 people were killed.

That day Taiwan had been hit by typhoon Matmo, a powerful tropical cyclone that had brought heavy rain, strong winds and landslides on the island. Many believed that the plane crash had been caused by the typhoon, although Taiwan's authorities had defended the decision to allow the plane to fly despite the bad weather. 

Today, Taiwan's Aviation Safety Council published a report that seems to confirm the link between the typhoon and the accident. According to the investigation, a few seconds before the fatal crash the pilots couldn't see the runway. When they took off from Kaohsiung Airport at 17:45, the weather conditions were already below the minimum requirement for landing at Magong Airport. The two pilots had flown from Magong to Kaohsiung earlier that day.

Nevertheless, the actual causes of the crash have not been determined and the final report will be published in October.

These are the facts we know. However, my personal opinion is that it was a huge mistake to allow planes to fly under such weather conditions. The evening prior to the arrival of typhoon Matmo I was taking a walk in Taipei. There was very heavy rain and strong wind. I remember asking myself if planes would fly the following morning, because the weather was so bad people could barely walk. My umbrella broke and I returned home completely drenched. 

Saturday, 20 December 2014

Huashan Creative Park, Taipei

In the heart of Taipei, in the middle of the sea of anonymous apartment blocks built in the decades following World War II, there lies a former industrial area that has remained virtually unchanged since its construction in the first half of the 20th century. This is the former 'Taipei Wine Factory' (台北酒廠), a complex of buildings that belonged to Taiwan Tobacco and Liquor Monopoly. By the 1980s. when Taiwan's economy was booming and its capital, Taipei, was growing fast, the presence of this factory in what had become the city centre (but was periphery in the Japanese era) raised environmental concerns. Therefore, in 1987 wine production was moved to Linkou Industrial Area, in the suburbs of Taipei County (present-day New Taipei City).

However, this 'museum-like' neighbourhood has not been saved by wise and history-conscious city planners, but - paradoxically - by neglect and indifference. Politicians were simply too idle and uninterested in order to make something out of these buildings, and so they left them alone for decades, in a state of decay and dilapidation.

Saturday, 13 December 2014

Hong Kong Journalists Denied Entry to Macau Ahead of Xi Jinping's Visit

On December 20 Xi Jinping, the president of the People's Republic of China (PRC), will visit the Macau Special Administrative Region (MSAR) to celebrate the 15th anniversary of the transfer of sovereignty of the former Portuguese colony.  

But while the Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying will attend the ceremony in Macau, Hong Kong journalists have already been denied entry to the neighbouring region. 

As the newspaper Apple Daily reported, yesterday  one of its journalists was denied entry into Macau. 

According to the paper, on December 12 the journalist took a ferry to Macau. After his arrival at the ferry station he went to the Immigration Hall, where the police prevented him from entering Macau. 

Public security officers took him to an examination room and asked for the purpose of his visit. The journalist replied he was there for an interview - without specifying whether he was the interviewer or the interviewee. 

The officers checked his documents and about half an hour later they told him that he had been denied entry. They handed him a note stating that his visit constituted a "threat to the stability of internal security" (內部保安的穩定構成威脅). He was then sent back to Hong Kong.   

Thursday, 11 December 2014

Goodbye, Occupy Central

The Hong Kong police have given the students that have occupied Admiralty an ultimatum: they must leave before 11 am today. Whoever stays will be arrested. 

Apparently the students have decided to comply. They are dismantling their tents, saying goodbye to the 'Umbrella City' they have created. The images of the occupation - a symbol of civil disobedience - will remain in the collective memory, just as those of the 1989 Tiananmen Square democracy movement did. The power of those images and ideas is stronger than the short-term failure of the protesters' political objectives. 

Rumours had been going around for weeks that the police would soon clear the sites of the protests. On the evening of December 1st I met a friend of mine. I hadn't seen her for a year. We went to a cafe' called Kubrick, in Yau Ma Tei. We talked a lot, and Occupy Central was one of our topics - it seemed impossible not to mention this issue when conversing with a Hongkonger, a proof of how passionate the people of Hong Kong are about the future destiny of their home city. After chatting for a few hours, we went back to the MTR station. It was raining outside, and it was suddenly colder. We said goodbye. 

I was happy to have met her again, and I felt somewhat energised. But I couldn't leave Hong Kong without seeing Occupy Central for the last time. Although it was late and the weather was bad, I went to Admiralty. There was hardly anyone on the street but me. I walked around the tents, the heavy rain pouring on me. A gloomy atmosphere enshrouded the usually lively and colourful encampment of the students. Only a few of them ventured out of their tents that night. It was about 3 am. Everything was quiet. As I walked along Cotton Tree Drive towards Wan Chai, I said goodbye to the students - those who were sleeping in the tents, braving the cold, and those who were at home.   

Occupy Central has made Hong Kong more beautiful than ever, giving its citizens passion, freeing their creativity, inspiring them. This 74-day long protest has shown the good side of Hong Kong, of which its people can be proud. Unluckily, the sad, boring, conformity-minded Communist government and its Hong Kong allies are triumphing again: greed, suspicion, fear is their way, a worldview hardly compatible with the spontaneity, freedom and idealism of the students. 

Occupy Central may have not accomplished its goals. But it has won a great victory. It has touched the hearts of thousands - if not millions - of people who have seen this movement unfold, who have witnessed the enthusiasm, fervour and solidarity of the citizens of Hong Kong. 

Tomorrow - when the traces of the occupation have been removed and the cars have reconquered the streets - Occupy Central will be history. Yes, it will be history, like the May 4th movement and the Tiananmen Square movement. It will be an indelible part of our collective memory for generations to come, and the seeds of change it has sown will grow. 

Goodbye, Occupy Central

Below a gallery of the pictures I took during the protests

Friday, 5 December 2014

Taipei's Beimen MRT Station and Its Hidden Treasures

Two days ago I took for the first time the new Songshan-Xindian MRT line (松山新店線, Line 3), which opened on November 15 (I wasn't in Taiwan at the time). The new line is an extension of the former Xindian-Danshui Line, which connected Xindian, in the southern part of New Taipei City, and Danshui (淡水), in the north. This South-North axis has now been split and two distinct MRT lines have been created: the Danshui-Xinyi Line (淡水信義線), and the aforementioned Songshan-Xindian line.

One interesting result of the completion of the MRT network is that all of the five city gates of Qing Dynasty Taipei Walled City now have stations named after them - Ximen (西門, 'West Gate'), Dongmen (東門, 'East Gate'), Beimen (北門, 'North Gate'), Nanmen (南門, 'South Gate') and Xiaonanmen (小南門, 'Little South Gate'). This highlights the infrastructural importance of the gates and of the boulevards which the Japanese constructed after the city walls' demolition in the early 20th century.

I decided to visit Beimen MRT Station, which is in many respects different from all other underground stations in Taipei. Because of its historical significance a section of it has been turned into a permanent exhibition about the history of that area from the Qing Dynasty to the present.