These guys only run forward!

I have just completed a three day trip to Chengdu, China, where I was visiting an NGO that provides HIV testing and counselling to men who have sex with men. There’s not much to report about the trip itself – the NGO is doing well and we came up with some interesting research opportunities, and I spent a lot of time eating exhausting spicy hotpots – but the Sichuan Airlines flight I took there gave me an opportunity to watch Operation Red Sea, the new hyped-up Chinese action movie. I previously reviewed Wolf Warrior 2, which I watched on a work trip to Guangzhou, so I thought this time I would give a review of this new phantasmagoria of action violence.

This movie is apparently based on a real event in which a Chinese warship evacuated Chinese and foreign nationals from Yemen in 2015. I think “based on” is doing a lot of work in this claim, however, since the sheer volume of damage and destruction handed out by the Chinese People’s Liberation Army in this movie could be seen from space if it actually happened, and I suspect that the only thing the real events and the movie have in common is the words “Chinese warship”. But don’t let that discourage you, because this is an action movie and we all know that action movies are at their best when they ignore reality.

The basic plot of this movie starts simple but gets over-complicated very quickly. A coup breaks out in a fictitious north African country, and as the coup unfolds an Islamist revolutionary group takes advantage of the situation to create havoc and try and steal some yellowcake and the plans for a dirty bomb. A bunch of Chinese nationals are caught in the country, working at various businesses, and so a Chinese warship (the Guangdong, I think) enters the port of the capital and deploys teams of soldiers to evacuate Chinese nationals. The parameters of their mission are very very clear: they are only to act with permission from the government (which they seek every time they expand their mission), and they are only there to save Chinese nationals. Anything else is a bonus, but they have to get permission for every bit of mission creep. This was also a strong theme in Wolf Warrior 2: as opposed to certain nations, these movies make very clear that the Chinese government does not interfere in other nations’ affairs unless it has permission from the UN and local governments, and only to protect Chinese interests.

Pretty much as soon as they enter the town where the civil war is unfolding things begin to go wrong. They get attacked from all sides, there are suicide bombers, the people they’re evacuating have been split up, and then they learn of more nationals who have been kidnapped and taken inland. One of these nationals is a female journalist who is hot on the case of a bunch of Islamists who are planning to steal some uranium ore, and a dubious scientist who has the plans for a dirty bomb that can be made with it. The soldiers have to go and save her but are attacked on the way, which requires much slaughter, and then find that to rescue the journalist they will have to fight an entire platoon of terrorists – 8 against 150, which of course they pull off because China! Then things go a bit awol, when the journalist tells them about the yellowcake and they decide – without permission from their superiors on the ship – to go foil the yellowcake plan. Rescuing the journalist leads to quite a few of the soldiers dying, and ends in a rather fantastic tank chase with strong hints of Mad Max.

Aside from occasional 5 or 10 minute breaks to set the scene of the next clusterfuck, and to lay out or reinforce a few nationalist themes, this movie is a non-stop warzone. It’s like your GM squeezed a whole campaign into two hours, with stirring music and a lot of stern faces. The soldiers level up between each scene too, because the challenges they face become more and more extreme and they rise to every single one. I didn’t know that Chinese special forces are also elite tank stunt drivers, but apparently they are, or at least in one of their level-ups they picked that skill to a pretty high level, and I think one of them must be able to fly heavy transport planes too. This movie is basically a team of 8 Rambos, doing Rambo things for two hours against exponentially increasing levels of difficulty.

Which would be frankly ridiculous but the action scenes are very good and the challenges are super fun. The whole thing is also anchored by the story of the sniper and his assistant, who seem to be the pivot around which the rest of the action takes place. The sniper scenes are really cool, and although one of the snipers is a typical East Asian hard-faced bullyboy[1], with vulnerable sidekick, they work out in the end. At several points in the action they are forced to face off against a baby-faced Arabian sniper, who is presented in a surprisingly sympathetic way and is actually pretty cool, though like pretty much everyone in this movie he gets it in the end (I think it’s safe to say that there’s no risk of spoilers here). The bad guys aren’t as one-dimensionally awful as the bad guys in Wolf Warrior 2, but they’re still very nasty, with a fondness for forcing innocent people to be suicide bombers by threatening their children, beheading journalists, that sort of thing[2]. It’s one of those movies where you really don’t feel bad about viscerally hating the enemy. Which is just as well because the body count is very high.

Along the way our team of heroes save a couple of victimized local women and some non-Chinese foreigners, and bravely also rescue a suicide bomber from his bomb, while under fire, but mostly their position is non-interventionist: they’re here to do a specific, limited, internationally-sanctioned job and they absolutely will not deviate from that mission unless there is zero risk that they will screw it up by helping out a local. They may be disgusted at the local brand of terrorism, but there’s no liberal interventionism here! The movie also makes a point of pausing regularly to reiterate basic Chinese government policy: we don’t intervene, we absolutely will not allow Chinese citizens to be victimized by other countries, all our actions are in accordance with international law, and everyone from China loves China. The movie also finishes with a shockingly nationalist epilogue: after all has been said and done and the special forces have returned to China, we have a final scene in which some unnamed ships from an unidentified nation are seen moving towards the screen, and a voiceover is saying something like “This is the Chinese navy. Do not enter Chinese territorial waters” with threats of escalating intensity. I think it’s clear enough to everyone who the unidentified nation are and where the territorial waters must be, and I think this might be the clearest case I have ever seen of current great power politics being expressed directly in a movie (barring the infamous final credits from Rambo IV, I guess).

This nationalism is an interesting experience in watching Chinese action movies like Operation Red Sea. Occasionally things happen on screen that are so blatantly intended to push nationalist buttons that you think “wow, this is super unsubtle and really close to fascist!” but then you pause and realize – because you’re viewing it from more of a distance than usual – that what you’re watching is no different to any number of American action movies. It’s probably less blatant than gay porn like Top Gun, and although nowhere near as self-critical as First Blood is definitely no worse than Rambo IV. Because we are not used to seeing military action movies from anyone except America, the kind of nationalism that is routine currency in American movies and that we’ve been raised on suddenly seems shockingly blatant and unpleasant. There’s absolutely nothing in Operation Red Sea that you would not see over and over in any episode of The Last Ship (remember when they pick up that mercenary at Guantanamo Bay? Good times!) But it stands out like dog’s balls when it’s not being portrayed by someone on “our side”. I think it’s very educational to see nationalism from the outside, and reminds me of how much we grow accustomed to in American movies that we really shouldn’t.

Overall this movie is a fun ride, though it has a few problems. The team really is a team, with no strong candidate for a single lead character, and so it’s hard to keep track of exactly who dies and who doesn’t because they’re largely interchangeable. It also seems to hand-wave away some important plot problems, like for example when they’re stranded in the middle of the desert with a bunch of foreign nationals and injured soldiers after the Islamists blow up their ride, and then suddenly we’re at the next battle and all their non-combatant charges have disappeared. They don’t spend much time on character development and aside from the chick, the dude who eats sweets and the sniper team we don’t have a lot of character to hang onto from half of the team (but it’s okay; most of this team aren’t going to go the distance). The first scene with the pirates and the ship also seems kind of unnecessary, like we could have just skipped that, but I guess the GM needed an introductory adventure for the characters. Other than these problems though the movie is a pretty solid contribution to the military action movie genre. It has a little bit of the feeling of Blackhawk Down, though it’s not as good as that (but most action movies aren’t). I recommend seeing it as both a cross-cultural experience, and a rich two hours of exhausting violence, with a tank chase!

fn1: I realize this might sound harsh to my reader(s), but if you have lived and worked in East Asia you’ll know the character I mean.

fn2: It says something about how awful the bad guys were in Wolf Warrior 2 that the journalist-beheading terrorists in this movie are less extreme. At least no one in this movie executed an entire hospital full of Doctors Without Borders volunteers, or blew up a bus full of refugees! (Actually on reflection they did do the latter, but in this movie the bus was part of a military convoy and was also carrying soldiers). But what does it tell us about the movie-maker’s point of view that the enemies in Wolf Warrior 2 were primarily western mercenaries, while the (not as nasty) dudes in this movie are Arabian?

Best not annoy the PLA!

Wolf Warrior 2 is an entertaining Chinese action movie set in Africa. It is the story of Leng Feng, a former special forces soldier in the Chinese People’s Liberation Army who lost his job after killing a corrupt gangster in China (in front of about 10,000 cops, natch), and ends up working in Africa, possibly as a mercenary and bodyguard. Things go wrong for him though when some random bunch of western mercenaries team up with local rebels to try and overthrow the government of the unnamed country where Feng is working. These guys are bad news, too – they don’t have any scruples at all, and are happy to do things like fire rocket propelled grenades into buses full of civilians, and destroy a Doctors Without Borders hospital after executing all its staff. As the rebellion grows in force all the international militaries leave the region, leaving just a couple of Chinese navy ships offshore – but they are unable to interfere because they are not allowed to intervene without UN authorization. China, good global citizens!

This is disaster for a small bunch of Chinese workers left inland, cut off and surrounded by bloodthirsty rebels and their nasty western backers. Fortunately Feng is there, so he grabs a truck and heads inland to save the day. He is accompanied by an American nurse who speaks perfect Chinese (and who knows the Americans will save her because she “tweeted at them on Twitter” haha), a retired Chinese soldier, and a spoiled Chinese boy who comes good at the end. Saving the Chinese workers means a long series of brutal battles with the African rebels and their western paymasters, which includes a pretty cool tank battle and a lot of slaughter of innocents (by the thoroughly reprehensible bad guys).

This is actually an excellent movie. It got a 70% critics review on rotten tomatoes, and an 80% audience review, and it deserves the 70%. The action scenes are well executed, the cinematography is good, the scenery and sets are great, and it has some big set pieces and novel ideas that take the action genre forward a step, to the extent that such a narrow and limited genre can progress at all. It also has a reasonably good sense of humour, decent dialogue and okay acting, which is actually more than one can expect from all but the best action movies. The plot makes sense, though some parts of it are thrown in without much explanation or build up so that they seem more like devices to make the violence hang together rather than a fully developed story. It doesn’t mess around with nuance – Feng isn’t an anti-hero or a conflicted reluctant hero – but in my opinion this is a good thing in action adventure movies. Those grim and conflicted action heroes are just embarrassing, generally – simple, straightforward heroes who do what they have to do and do it well are what we want, and Feng definitely does what he has to do very well. Like most modern action movies it’s too long, and could probably stand to lose a few scenes and be about 20% shorter, but I’m starting to accept that short movies are a thing of the past – 2 hour bloat is just normal in modern cinema.

So overall it’s a fun romp through Africa with a driven and determined Chinese dude on a kind of revenge kick (he has a refrigerated ex who is somehow connected to these mercenaries, presumably from the first movie that I never saw). It’s also interesting because it obviously shows a clear sense of how the Chinese government and leadership want their country’s position on Africa and overseas military intervention to be depicted, and overall it’s a fairly positive story. Unlike the Rambos of American cinema, the Chinese military strictly won’t interfere without UN authorization, and unlike a lot of western heroes Feng didn’t blow in with the latest military adventure to sort out some trouble – he lives in Africa and is doing a good job there minding his own business until African trouble sweeps over his home. When we visit the Chinese factory whose workers he is rescuing, we discover that many of the Chinese workers have African wives and family, and when the Chinese factory leader tries to make the Africans stay behind to be murdered while the Chinese flee, we are clearly meant to understand that this is a terrible thing to do – and Feng steps in to make sure everyone can be helped. The movie has more of a sense of Chinese people embedded in Africa, engaged with it and part of its troubles, rather than swinging in to do a bit of wetwork and swing out again. This is very much in keeping with China’s vision of itself as a neutral mercantile nation with a strict non-interference policy, and it certainly is nice to see a movie where the action hero has to go off alone to do his work because the military that backs him up refuses to do anything illegal – a very different kind of situation to Rambo. This isn’t to say that the movie is free of militaristic propaganda, because in fact it’s up to its neck in pro-PLA propaganda, but the slant of that propaganda is very different to American action movies. There are more action movies coming out of Mainland China, and this story of China as a responsible global citizen is also in the upcoming Operation Red Sea. Chinese militarist action movies are a new thing to me, and it’s interesting to watch them and see how they present China and Chinese strategic interests to the world, and what kind of vision of themselves the Chinese are projecting to the world. And it’s certainly different to the American vision!

So if you want to see a good action movie, I strongly recommend Wolf Warrior 2. You’ll find it doubly enjoyable if, like me, you’re interested in how these kinds of movies reflect and project the culture that made them, and like to try and see the national story that the action is trying to tell. You an also enjoy it as guilt free militarist action, since it’s not set in anything that resembles a real geo-political situation, and every bad guy who gets killed in this movie thoroughly deserves to die. Guilt-free, entertaining militarist action with a fresh worldview – what’s not to like? So if you’re into explosions and insane solo bad-arsed action hero madness, get out and see it!

Heading for a fall?

China’s rapid economic rise has been the topic of much debate over the past few years, and I think that this rise has some implications for western political economic theorists that are quite fun to explore. The orthodox view of China’s rise seems to be that it is going to continue to grow rapidly for a while to come, and that this growth is a serious threat to world stability. Of course a lot of the kind of thinking you read on China is just bog-standard journalistic stupidity, not worthy of much time and heavily influenced by that strange blend of insecurity and arrogance that seems to characterize cheap western journalists’ approach to Asia. A lot of it also looks like a very close copy of what was said about Japan both before World War 2 and again during Japan’s meteoric rise of the 70s and 80s. However, generally, no matter how poor the quality of journalism on Japan, foreign policy seems to have been much more level-headed, and China has been allowed to do its thing largely in peace since the 1970s. In response, China has changed radically over that time: it’s adopted many elements of the free market, turned its back on much of the Maoist principles that led to disasters like the Cultural Revolution, and has even come close to admitting and apologizing for Tienanmen Square (though it hasn’t). Also, most of the UN’s millenium goals have not been met, but those that have been met are largely due to China: it has made huge inroads into health and social problems that other developing economies have failed to dent, so something is going right in China. On the other hand, some people think that China is heading for a crash, and that this crash is going to be bad, based on bad fundamentals; this goes very much against the orthodoxy and is almost a heretical claim, but it is out there. Certainly China’s GDP growth is hard to believe from the perspective of most developed economies.

I think these changes, and the way the world is beginning to reorient economically and politically around Asia, raise interesting questions for political economists in the West. I think that a lot of people are ignoring the possible theoretical challenges that China’s rise may pose for a variety of Western disciplines, and I want to consider them here. Let us suppose that China continues to liberalize politically without becoming democratic, and let us assume also that China follows the trajectory many people seem to believe it is capable of, and continues to develop without an economic crash – that is, it maintains an economy that has, essentially, the characteristics of a bubble without collapsing – suppose instead that it makes a soft landing, with the party putting the brakes on growth where necessary and slowing things down at the right time – this seems to be what many people believe will happen. I think this raises some challenging questions for market neo-liberals, marxists and possibly also Keynesians, that I’d like to consider here.

1. Is market capitalism the best model?

Modern Western political economics seems to have pretty much given up on any kind of economic system except market capitalism, but most economic theorists seem resigned to the existence of boom-and-bust cycles in capitalism: the challenge is not in getting rid of them, but in managing them. But every bust is a tragedy for a minority of the population, and creates (minor) political upheaval. Eliminating boom-and-bust would be a boon for capitalism, but despite the Gordon Brown’s infamous claim to the contrary, it doesn’t seem possible. So if China can develop over the next 10 years without experiencing such a catastrophe, then the Chinese may be able to claim to have developed a capitalist model free of busts; but their model, for all its capitalist points, is not market capitalism. Is managed capitalism a better capitalist model than market capitalism, and can it be achieved in a democracy? Of course, other Asian nations have shown similar economic models – Japan and Thailand spring to mind – but they eventually faced busts as they liberalized. If China avoids the bust (and there’s no guarantee it will) while maintaining greater than 5% annual growth over 2 decades, what does this tell us about the relative merits of managed vs. market capitalism? I think this possibility raises challenging questions for liberal economists and Keynesians alike.

2. Are economic freedoms and political freedoms really intertwined?

A common mantra of neo-liberal economists and market liberals generally is that economic and political freedoms are intricately intertwined; that you cannot genuinely have one without the other. In its most extreme form any form of government interference in markets must necessarily reduce political freedom too; in more reasonable forms, it’s not possible to advance to a proper level of political and social freedom if large portions of the population don’t have economic freedom. But this doesn’t happen in China: a society without fundamental political freedoms is developing a strong market economy, which (although I have no proof) I think is much more economically free than the classical liberal model would expect given the lack of political freedoms. Is the market liberalist model of the essential interconnection of these two freedoms fundamentally wrong? If so, under what conditions? I can think of a model of economic and political freedom in Australia which depends on strong, prescriptive social institutions (union membership and compulsory voting) that are quite unique in the developed world – and Australia also has a remarkable economic history over the past 30 years. Is some restriction on political freedom essential for achieving economic freedom?

3. Was historical materialism completely wrong?

As I understand it, historical materialism describes stages of economic development that societies pass through, and argues that transition to a new stage occurs through social and political upheaval. Typically, marxists believed that the communist revolution could only occur once society had developed through some “objective” standards, to the point of industrialization, and that the social and political upheaval that heralded the coming of the communist utopia would generally only be achieved when society contained a sufficient critical mass of politically conscious industrial workers. Generally, therefore, marxists preferred to be active in industrialized societies with strong unions and social democratic parties – places like the UK and (famously) Germany. But the most successful communist societies – Cuba and China – were underdeveloped relative to the historical materialist model, and their revolutions occurred through military action amongst peasants by a vanguard of (often foreign-educated) members of the elite, not the industrial working class. Communist China has existed since 1949, so in 2021 it will become the longest-lived communist nation on Earth (supplanting the USSR, 1917-1989); sooner if you factor in the period of instability in the USSR that followed the revolution (the equivalent period having occurred before 1949 in China). So unless something drastic happens in the next 10 years, it appears that historical materialism’s predictions were, are and will be thoroughly and utterly wrong. Not only that; while the USSR and the Eastern European communist states, founded in a strong industrial working class, were inflexible and oppressive, China and Cuba have shown themselves to be much better able to adapt to the flows of history, and have shown themselves capable of survival through pursuing political, economic and foreign policy reforms that were unthinkable to the founding nations of the communist ideal. Of course, it could just be that there are cultural influences at work – Cuba is far from the only South American country to have tried communism, and the rest (like Nicaragua) were very flexible in their interpretation of the tenets of Marxism; and Vietnam is another example of an Asian communist country that gave classical Marxism the flick very quickly. But historical materialism presents itself as some kind of fundamental theory. Whichever way you slice it, unless China really goes under in the next 5-10 years, I think Marxists need to accept that their view of history is completely stupid and wrong. And when they do, I’d like an apology to my Grandfather for the despicable actions of the USSR in the Spanish civil war – actions that were based in an application of historical materialism to a country that was very close to the Latin American and Asian exemplars of a society ready for a communist revolution.

4. Is parliamentary democracy the only model of consultative government?

I think that the Chinese one-party state is actually quite a consultative political system – through cadres and local party structures I think it gathers information on the needs and opinions of ordinary Chinese and adapts its policies accordingly. People don’t get to vote for their leaders, but I think there are ways in which the leadership is influenced by ordinary opinion. I think this is a crucial part of the process by which the country has been able to engage in near-continuous reform since 1970, without many significant internal upheavals. I also think that this is an important difference between China and the USSR, whose leaders acted like new Tzars. Furthermore, it is clear that the Chinese leadership listen and react to foreign opinion, though never (obviously) against their own interests. So I wonder if they have created a kind of consultative government that responds to public pressure without elections. If it were possible to quantify differences in political responsiveness, would the Chinese leadership be found to be significantly different in accountability to, say, Obama, Bush or Sarkozy? Especially on foreign policy issues, China has avoided some quagmires that the entire world was very clearly telling Bush and Blair they should avoid; but it has also implemented significant reforms in economic and social policy that one would not expect of a communist leadership. Is this a sign of careful listening? And if so, does this mean that consultative government can be achieved without elections – is it possible it could be more desirable? If not desirable as a whole, does it offer any lessons in public accountability and responsiveness that western democracies can learn from? Was, e.g., the Australian Labor Party a more responsive and consultative government under Hawke not because of his leadership but because of its strong system of local branches and union representation? Is the problem with modern political parties that they are poll-driven spin-monsters, or that they lack the grassroots membership necessary to maintain a level of consultative interaction with the community? And if so, are they still genuinely democratic, even though they maintain the semblance of democracy through elections? If democracy is reduced to just a shell-game of voting and polling, is it any better than a politically restrictive but socially consultative dictatorship? Is the only difference one of sustainability, in that a dictatorship can go pear-shaped after a change of leader, while a democracy can’t? And if so, how do we explain the continued smooth transitions of leadership in Chinese communism?

5. Are democracies less militaristic than dictatorships?

In my previous post on China’s military budget, I noted that China is actually a pretty good international citizen, with low levels of military spending and very few imperialist projects. In short, China doesn’t go to war easily. In the past 20 years it hasn’t gone to war at all, while the USA has gone to war at least four times – on one occasion “accidentally” lobbing a missile into a Chinese consulate, an act that China chose not to respond aggressively too. How is it that a one party state that is, let’s face it, militarily pretty impregnable even when it isn’t spending much, is so uninterested in military adventures? One idea that occurred to me with the anniversary of the Falklands War is that China doesn’t have any domestic democratic pressure to go to war. China manipulates militaristic sentiment domestically, some would argue quite cynically, but is perfectly capable of putting a lid on demands for war. On the other hand, democratic leaders can benefit significantly from military intervention, whether they seek it out (as Bush did in Gulf War 2) or it comes to them (as in the Falklands). They have a lot of incentives to manipulate jingoistic sentiment,  and I think recent events show that they are quite happy to do so when it suits them. Before world war 2, wars of colonial conquest were a given in Western political theory – the idea that you don’t invade some tinpot country when it suits you would have been quite alien to the way of thinking of most democrats in London or Washington or Paris. Perhaps for dictators war is much less likely to be a net positive politically than it is for democrats? But this idea doesn’t stand up by itself – dictators have a long history of stupid wars, and the worst wars of the last century only occurred after democracies slid into dictatorship. So what is the particular property of China’s one-party state that makes it so averse to wars of choice? Some cultural thing? Something about its particular political constitution? If so, is there a class of dictatorships – like China – that are much less likely to go to war than a modern democracy? Are the properties of this class fragile and easily changeable (so that, e.g., China could just suddenly flip into a military expansionist mode tomorrow), or does it have something to do with the aforementioned consultative style? Is it simply a function of China’s stage of development? Is there something about the sheer size and diversity of China that means the political class have to tread very carefully to avoid tearing the country apart?

I don’t claim to have a view one way or the other on any of these questions, but I think they pose interesting challenges to the mainstream of western political economics as I perceive it through my (layman’s) perspective. If China successfully negotiates its development phase, and especially if it can resolve the Taiwan issue peacefully, then I think political economists are going to have to accept that their theories are challenged by the new models (and some of the older ones) springing up in Asia. I doubt we’ll see much change, but that doesn’t mean we can’t consider the possible ramifications of a peaceful, stable, economically and environmentally sustainable China, if such a beast emerges over the next 10-20 years. How will Western democratic and economic ideologies change in the Asian century?

The Guardian is doing a series on China this week, some of which is quite interesting – the article on Gansu’s solar revolution is quite fascinating to someone (i.e. me) who visited that province 10 years ago and saw nothing but Yak herders, for example. However, in amongst the interesting cultural discussion there is the usual western panic at the prospect of China’s military growth, with an article on its foreign policy declaring breathlessly

China’s military still lags far behind the US, but its official military budget has risen from $14.6bn to $106bn in 12 years – and many believe the true level of spending is far higher.

This kind of statement isn’t limited to the Guardian – newspapers all over Australia, the US and the UK like to point to this 7-fold increase in the military budget and talk about what it signifies. I think it signifies nothing. In fact, the same day this article was written the Guardian put up one of their bravely-named “datablogs” about Chinese GDP, and showed us that 12 years ago it was 390 billion US$, while now it is 6,990 billion US$. So military spending has dropped from 3.7% of GDP to 1.5% of GDP. Cause to worry?

China’s inflation in the early 1990s was running at up to 20% per year, and it’s easy to see that $14.6bn was going to devalue rapidly. In fact, applying the cpi inflation figures to China’s 1990 spending, we see that just to keep up with inflation military spending today would need to be 37 billion US$. So the true increase in spending is not 7-fold at all, but a maximum of 3-fold. In terms of absolute growth it’s a bit scary, but in terms of proportion of GDP China has been de-militarizing rapidly. And a lot of the spending has been catch up anyway.

So let’s compare China’s geo-strategic situation with the USA, which according to wikipedia had a 2011 budget of 1 trillion US$ – 10 times that of China, and 7.7% of its GDP. The USA shares land borders with two democratic, stable states, one of which has some instability on its border. It has no immediate regional rivals bar Cuba, and its nearest geopolitical rivals are an ocean away. There are no hostile military occupations by geopolitical rivals in nations that share a land border with it or its neighbours. By contrast, China:

  • Shares a border with Russia (enough said!)
  • Shares a border with Kyrgyzstan, which hosts a military base with one of its geopolitical rivals (the USA)
  • Shares a (sliver of) border with Afghanistan, a failed state currently occupied by a geopolitical rival
  • Shares a border with India, which (I think) has territorial claims on parts of China
  • Shares borders with Myanmar and North Korea, both failed or failing autocratic states
  • Is separated by a narrow sea lane from its nearest regional rival, Japan, which has a large and dangerous military and a history of aggressive war against China
  • Depends for trade on a series of sea-ways (e.g. the straits of Malacca) that are known to be subject to piracy
  • Has territorial claims on a nation that its main geopolitical rival is pledged to protect

Plus of course that geo-political rival maintains a significant military force in the Pacific and in neighbouring nations (e.g. Japan and Korea). Yet, China’s defense spending has declined as a percentage of GDP and has increased in absolute terms only three-fold over the past 12 years.

This makes China seem very far from a belligerent power, and if anything the very model of restraint and good neighbourliness. If the USA, France or Britain were subject to the kind of geopolitical situation China faces, would they be funding their military at these rates, or gearing up for a massive expansion? So why do newspapers bother with this simplistic pap about China?

When Britpop was Beautiful

Summer is the festival season in Japan, and the music festivals come with it. My partner and I went to Summersonic this year, primarily to see Suede, and because the line up was a little boring, we went later than usual, arriving at about 4pm and missing some of the minor bands. Nonetheless, we had a good afternoon and evening. Of course the Japanese do music festivals the way they do everything – quietly, politely, and with a hefty dose of civilization. No watered-down beer and long queues for food here, because there were about 15 bars and about 50 food shops, as well as 5 or 6 stages, so that people were spread well throughout the place. The stage times were staggered so that there was no simultaneous throng of people leaving stages all at the same time, and there was a wide range of chill-out places. Unlike my disastrous experience with Snap, C&C Music Factory and “the KLF Experience” in Sydney many years ago, there was a huge amount of seating, so people were in good humour, well-fed and relaxed, with lots to do while they waited for their favourite band. This was despite the intense summer heat – it was 33C and intensely humid yesterday, and all the bands were sweating buckets, but everyone was chilled and there was no sign of violence or trouble. Ah, Japan… So here’s an overview of what we saw.

Upcoming Chinese Music at the Island Stage

The Island Stage was one of the smaller stages, and not many people were watching at any time, but it was particularly interesting because it had been set aside for a range of new bands from Asia – mainly Chinese, I think – and they were really interesting. First we saw Muma and Third Party, who I only saw one song by before they finished, but they seemed very promising. Next we saw Queen Sea Big Shark, who were like a slightly more New Romantic version of La Roux, slightly poppier and less electronic but very good and energetic. We then stuck around for the highlight, Rebuilding the Rights of Statues, who were a kind of Editors-meets-Bauhaus, frantic guitar rock goth crossover with a lot of energy and passion. Their first song, Bela Lugosi is Back, was a great reinterpretation of the classic original, a bit more speedy and with some frantic guitar loaded on. We liked these bands so much that we bought their CDs, and I’ll be keeping an eye on Chinese acts in Tokyo – the impression I got from this stage was of a lot of gothic/electronic crossover work going on in this particular music scene. Very interesting!

Jon Spencer Blues Explosion

Shit, stayed around for two songs. If you’re going to be a pretentious music-type wanking your guitar on stage, you have to be good.

Public Image Limited

I have my issues with Johnny Rotten, and I have my issues with bands steaming on past their old-age use by date (I saw Motorhead at another Summersonic, and they were good, but they just seemed like a bunch of old men going through the motions, and there’s something about rock that is young and stupid and at some point people need to give it up), and I quite frankly couldn’t care less if the Sex Pistols had never climbed out of their own vomit long enough to divert punk into its inevitable musical cul-de-sac (though without them we wouldn’t have the excellent Megadeth cover of Anarchy). But despite this, and a slightly doddery and past-it Johnny Rotten looking just a bit out of place in a rock gig rather than an old people’s home, PiL were good. He really can do that vibrato intense voice live, despite his age and the heat, and the guitar work was really really cool. I only stuck around for half of PiL (sorry Johnny, but I was more interested in Rebuilding the Rights of Statues and Suede) but what I saw was very nice, and I’m encouraged to listen to a little more – I didn’t realize PiL was so swirly and intense, having only heard a couple of their songs. So that was nice. But we had to flee before the end to get to the main act…


Now, I’m not so into bands reforming and doing money-making reunion tours, at least, not as a concept, but I can’t really criticize Suede for doing this. I’ve seen Brett Anderson live by himself and also in the Tears, and I know he can continue to produce quite beautiful and intense music – his creativity isn’t trapped in his youth. I also know he can produce passionate work (his solo rendition of Asphalt World at the Mermaid was amazing), and I’m pretty sure he has reinvigorated Suede for the simple reason that a whole bunch of his fans didn’t get to enjoy him live back in the day, and Suede always had a feeling of having ended before its time. So he’s not making anything new with them, just giving people what they didn’t get enough of back then. And I can’t fault it, because what he gives us is such vintage Suede, and so full of the original passion and grand intensity of the band, that one can only be carried along. Brett Anderson is intense, energetic, still astoundingly sexy (and beautiful) and if anything he’s better than he was back in the day. I’ve seen him in different guises four or five times now and every time he does this thing where, about half way through the performance, he really starts to get into it – gets transported to a different place, and really takes the crowd with him. And the crowd really were obssesively good, singing along to all the words and bouncing and screaming (and nearly crushing me when he came to touch the front rows). You can tell Brett Anderson really loves performing, and you can tell that his fans really love the attention he gives them. This was a vintage live performance, full of the classic songs delivered with the original passion, and if you get a chance to see the reformed Suede, I strongly recommend it.

So, overall, Summersonic was a blast even though I only really went to see one band. I got to find out about a few new bands, enjoyed some really solid performances, and had a good (but exhausting) day out. Next year I probably won’t be going – the line up has been declining in interest every year, from the high point (2006?) when I saw Metallica perform the 20th anniversary rendition of the album Master of Puppets, and also The Editors and Tears. But it’s worth it if one of your favourite bands is there, because you’re bound to stumble on something else you like. Give it a try if you can!

Primo Levi’s The Truce is a beautiful book that contains many insights into the human condition. For those who have not had the good fortune to read this masterpiece, it describes the year or so period over which Primo Levi recovered from his experience of Auschwitz and his return to Italy. Having been rescued by the Russians, Levi necessarily spent his time recovering in refugee camps and transit centres in the Soviet Union. In additional to his remarkable insights into the nature of humanity, Levi also gives us a unique picture of Russia under Stalin. Unlike most western writers of the time, he was not writing about his time in Russia in order to criticize or applaud communism; his experience was entirely tangential to it, and although thankful to his Soviet liberators and potentially a sympathizer (since a leftist during the war), he had no particular broader political motives for his book. This is about as unbiassed a snapshot of Soviet life as you could hope to get at the time, and it is remarkable for one common theme : chaos. Contrary to our image of communist life as regimented, strictly controlled and highly authoritarian, his experience of the Soviet Union was one of chaos, easy movement, rules flouted, and a kind of free-floating easiness of life that one wouldn’t expect in this putatively rigid society. One could argue that this was a consequence of the immediate confusion of the post-war era, but I don’t think this can be all of the reason: we know that the Soviet Union launched vicious crackdowns in its territories when the war was over, and very efficiently looted East Germany; surely if they had wanted to they could have run their refugee camps, railway stations and behind-the-lines towns with an iron fist. But they didn’t, and this surprised me when I read the book. One doesn’t associate chaotic and disordered, highly transient and quite libertine lifestyles with an immediate post-war Stalinist state.

Recently I have been reading a book called Passage to Manhood: Youth Migration, Heroin and AIDS in Southwest China, by Shao-hua Liu, which is a book about the development of heroin addiction and the HIV/AIDS epidemic in minority Nuoso people in Sichuan province, China. The book is based on ethnographic research carried out by Liu during 2005-2009, and describes the particular social and cultural context in which heroin addiction spread through this community. It’s billed as a work of “medical ethnography” and it certainly doesn’t disappoint in this regard. It’s a very interesting read! Although the fieldwork was conducted in the 2000s, much of the discussion concerns past events in the lives of the research subjects, and many of these past events focus around criminality: historically the Nuoso have entered manhood by looting neighbouring Han Chinese areas and taking slaves, and as modernity overtook their communities this practice shifted from looting neighbouring areas to going on journeys to large cities and engaging in petty crime in places like Chengdu, Xi’An, or even Beijing. The book contains accounts of some of these activities.

This is interesting because it gives us an insight into the interaction of criminals from an ethnic minority (supposedly discriminated against in China) with China’s public security officials. China is supposedly highly authoritarian and has a strong police force, large prison population, etc. So one would expect that there would be a fairly robust response to Nuoso criminality, and some evidence of the pervasive nature of Chinese authoritarianism. In fact, we read more of the same kinds of thing as Levi described. For example, in one passage we discover that an area of Han Chinese in Chengdu got permission from the police to set up an extra-judicial police force to patrol their areas and prevent Nuoso from entering them unless they had identification. You would think that a strong central state would prohibit private groups from this sort of thing, unless (perhaps) they were officially-supported militia. But compared to the states dealings with the Han Chinese, when they interact with Nuoso criminals things really get chaotic. Let us consider three examples.

The Mummy Clause

In one instance, a mother was arrested for drug dealing in Yunnan province and sent to a detention centre. The mother had a baby of several months who she was nursing, and so her family petitioned the local Communist Party to let her go for a year so she could nurse her baby. They did, on the condition that she return to detention after a year. At the end of that year she absconded and returned to drug dealing in Chengdu. The story does not contain any suggestion that the police were able to follow her. This is an example of an informal judicial arrangement being made for an ethnic minority mother – is it consistent with our expectation of a strong Chinese security apparatus?

Public Cremation

In Nuosu theology, it is very important to cremate the body of a dead person, and to return at least some of their skeleton and ashes to the family so that their three souls can gain proper rest. Of course, for homeless Nuosu drug users in big cities far from their homes, this is very difficult. Many Nuosu died of drug overdose and had to be cremated in the cities where they died, but this often cost far more than even a wealthy Nuosu could afford. In one account, a Nuosu man describes his experience of burning the dead in the parks of Xi’an:

One time, in the middle of a cremation on the fringes of Xi’an City, policemen suddenly arrived and accused me of being a murder. I told them, “I didn’t kill him. He was my own brother! We Yizu [minorities] do this to teh dead all the time.” I showed the policemen the dead man’s hukou[registration card]. I thought it might be needed, so I had brought it with me from Limu. I also gave the policemen the telephone number of the Zhoujue County Police Station. They made a call to the Zhaojue and realized that we Yizu do cremate the dead this way. So they didn’t arrest me but warned me not to burn bodies this way anymore.

So this is the fearful Chinese police in action. They catch you burning a body in one of China’s major cities, and they ask you not to do it again, and decide not to investigate a murder, after calling a rural police station and being told that this sort of thing happens. Can you imagine if you tried burning a body in a bit of scrubland on the edge of the city you currently live in, and the police caught you? Would it be sufficient to say “I can’t afford a crematorium”? If an Aboriginal man tried to do a customary burning of a body on the outskirts of an Australian city, would he be let off with a caution by passing cops? I think not!

Anti-drug Campaigns

The author also describes the initial efforts by Chinese police to break up drug dealing in the Nuosu towns. Having initially left it to the local Nuosu elders (“lineage groups”) to resolve the problem – itself not the sort of behaviour one associates with a state that is oppressing minorities –  the police finally started acting on the increasing problems that were being experienced in these towns. In one instance they broke up a group of youths who were watching tv in front of a school. The Nuosu being interviewed tells us

Everybody ran and hastily threw the drugs behind the TV set. The police arrested a five-year-old boy who happened to pick up a small packet of drugs! His lineage headmen complained to the police about their arrest of an innocent kid and finally were able to take him back home.

What happened to the terrifying police? Where are their powers of arbitrary detention? What about using the kid as a hostage to enforce good behaviour by the barbarian minority?! What about swapping the kid for a drug dealer, or sending the lot of them to work camps? And just precisely how official and intimidating and well-organized could this raid possibly have been, when everyone was able to run and throw their drugs behind the TV. Imagine if the police in your country did a drug bust, and your level of terror of them was sufficiently low that throwing your drugs behind a communal tv would be sufficient to get you out of trouble.

I’ve seen COPS, and I don’t think that things would have panned out quite the same way for a group of young men from an American minority in the same situation.

This is not the kind of thing one expects of a society with a strong police state, where untold hordes of people are supposedly shuffling around in re-education camps, while those who are “free” yearn for the real freedoms of the west. In fact, the USA has a much higher rate of imprisonment than China, and debate about whether China has a more punitive public security system than the US centres around the numbers of unofficial prisoners (the shambling hordes in the work camps) and the treatment of minorities. This book suggests to me that the Chinese handling of (non-political) crimes is much less punitive than the US, and more chaotic and based on individual discretion (not always a good thing) and that there is a lot of confusion in its public security apparatus. It also suggests to me that their system of handling minorities is not as oppressive as some commentators would have us believe.

As ever, nothing of what we’re told by our friends in the media can be trusted…



Australia’s Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, is touring tsunami-affected parts of Japan today, and discussing deepening military ties with a country that just 70 years ago we were at war with. This is testimony to both the power of Australians and Japanese to overcome prejudice, and the huge changes that have occurred in Japan since the tragic end of that terrible war. These changes are particularly notable because, like Germany, Japan entered World War 2 only after the country had been overtaken by, essentially, a military dictatorship – but I think it’s safe to say that Japan’s pre-dictatorship democracy was more fragile than Germany’s. Julia Gillard’s tightening of Australian-Japanese ties, and her discussion of the role of China in the region, reminded me of two theories I’ve been harbouring in my breast for years about Japanese and Chinese history, so I thought I’d lay them out here and see if anyone has anything to say about them. I have no skills in historical analysis, so I think it’s reasonable to say that they’re likely bullshit, and probably not even factually correct. If so, please correct me. First Japan, then my (much more speculative) views on China.

World War 2 as a Revocation of Meiji

I use the phrase “World War 2” to appeal to a western reader’s view of the war, but Japan’s involvement in world war 2 was only a very brief and tragic part of a much larger military engagement, which gets called various things here, such as “The Fifteen Years War” and the “Great Pacific War.” This started around about 1932, I think, when Japan started causing trouble in Korea and China, and began to assign itself the right to have “colonies” in Asia. A large part of this attitude was driven by a newfound chauvinism and a view that Japan had entered the tier of developed nation great powers, and I think such views were common at the time. The Germans were also complaining that they were the only European “power” without colonies, and I think Italy was trying to establish Imperial possessions in North Africa. It’s worth bearing in mind too that democracy in the 20s and 30s had much less legitimacy than it does now – many countries in the 30s had only had universal suffrage for 10 or 20 years, and for much of its history to date democracy had been a means by which the ruling classes debated amongst themselves as to how to dispose of the fruits of the labours of their non-voting classes. Now, of course, democracy has a 100-or-so year history of genuinely universal suffrage, and it’s been more than 100 years since the vote was extended to working-class men. So it’s easy to see that in the 20s and 30s colonialism and anti-democratic ideals could have mainstream appeal.

Japan had newfound military and international political confidence in 1905, after they trounced the Russians, and by the 1930s the western powers were starting to get worried, and forced Japan to sign up to a treaty limiting their naval tonnage, as well as rejecting a racial equality motion at the League of Nations. I have read people in Australia pointing out that the mismanagement of Japan’s military and economic growth is a good example of exactly how the west should not deal with China – responding to a new economic and military power by trying to cut off their legitimate political interests and military development is likely to exacerbate the risks of conflict; and in the 1920s colonial possessions were seen as a legitimate interest. It’s also worth remembering that before world war 2 Japan was a major industrial power as well – anyone in doubt of this should visit the Kawasaki museum in Yokohama, to witness the vast array of heavy manufacturing that was being exported from Japan in the 20s.

Along with this growing military confidence and colonialism, Japan was also going through a series of significant cultural developments that have been very well described by Basil Chamberlain, who maintains that Bushido was a fictional concept invented by the turn of the century Japanese military establishment, and points out that Shintoism’s place in national politics was changed to support the development of an intense nationalism in Japan. But this nationalism was heavily slanted towards militarism, and steeped in imagery of the power of the emperor and the importance of political ideals from before the Meiji restoration. In fact, I think that the Great Pacific War represents the terrible culmination of a long project by the military class in Japan to unwind the Meiji restoration and end the separation of the state and the military.

While western nations have struggled to separate church and state, Japan has historically had a huge problem with the non-separation of the military and the state. This problem came to a head in the 19th century after the Americans forced the Japanese to end their period of isolation. In the ensuing political and cultural struggles, civil society reacted against the historically overbearing role of the military – represented through the excessive power of the Shoguns in political life. By 1867 the emperor had become so weak and the Shogunate so powerful that the military were essentially the dominating force in domestic politics. The Meiji restoration undid this dictatorship, and included a civil war that the shoguns lost convincingly to a civilian army, a military defeat that I think they and their descendants never got over. After Meiji came a series of democratization reforms, most of them adopted along German models, and culminating in the early 20th century with universal suffrage (I think!) and the adoption of a kind of liberal democratic modern world.

However, from the 1920s on the military used flaws in the constitutional process, and their historical position near the levers of power, to regain control over the government piece by piece. I have even read that by 1942 they had so far pushed the Emperor out of power that he never learnt of the defeat of the carrier forces at the battle of Midway, and only learnt of it in the dying days of the war. By the mid-30s the military had complete control over who would sit in the cabinet, and could control the selection of the government; they were also engineering “incidents” (such as the Marco Polo bridge incident) in China to bring forward plans and excuses for war and colonization. As is often the case, every step down the path to war reduced the power of civil society and caused Japanese political life to become more closed and thus more amenable to militarism. By the time of Pearl Harbour the Japanese military was basically running the country through a puppet cabinet, with Emperor Hirohito as basically a figurehead (though, I suspect, a willing one).

i.e. they had restored the Shogunate, and returned Japan to its “natural” position as a society ruled by enlightened military leaders through puppet governments. They achieved this through a 20 or 30 year process of interference in political life, and before that by careful development of cultural ideals (of Bushido, and of the righteousness of Shintoism) that served their goals. Compare this to the military dictatorships in Europe at that time, which generally came about after short political struggles in civil society, during which the thugs of the far right intimidated the unionized left, and then at some key point the civilian leadership invited the military to help them through emergency rule. Hitler’s ascension, for example, was almost entirely conducted through the political sphere, and in fact he had to develop a parallel military to serve his aims (which he then disbanded, brutally, once he had the real military on side). I think that the Japanese slide into dictatorship was a very different animal, conducted subtly as a process of revocation of Meiji.

This isn’t to say that the military knew they were doing this – they may just have been seizing power by the means they thought best suited their culture, but that means inevitably ends up resembling a return to the pre-modern era, and could only be facilitated through a continual slide into war. Given that the USA was hell bent on stymying Japanese expansion in Asia, and the military’s plans for domestic power required foreign intervention, a collision was inevitable. I think America and the UK could have avoided this collision had they been better acquainted with Japan, but by 1935 Japan was still largely a mystery in the West – in 1905 when he wrote his essay, Chamberlain notes that there is only one history of Japan published in English, and the first real interpreters of Japan for a foreign non-academic audience only started writing in the late 19th and early 20th century. So it’s reasonable to say that the west – and especially the English-speaking west – were struggling to understand Japanese political goals in the inter-war era.

So, just as the war in Europe put an end to military dictatorship as a respected form of political power in Western Europe (but sadly, gave proletarian dictatorship a big boost), so it was only the complete destruction of the Japanese army that ended its long-held desires to return to a Meiji-era position of prominence in Japanese cultural life. It took a war of unprecedented scale and horror to finally guarantee Japan a pathway to peaceful democracy, and even then the post-war disputes were quite vigorous and violent. It could even be argued, I think, that there is another kind of revocation of Meiji going on in modern Japan, with the military’s role replaced by the big corporations, who sometimes appear to control the government in much the same way as the military once did. Maybe this is a model of democracy that the Japanese can’t escape, and the continuity is still there even now.

Communist China as a Continuation of Empire

So now we move on to the issue of communist China. I visited China for a month in 2002, and I was struck by some of the parallels between the modern communist government and the Empire that it replaced. Three particular parallels surprised me: the reconstruction of the great wall, the judgment of heaven, and the role of mandarins.

The Reconstruction of the Great Wall: Throughout history, when a new Emperor seized the reins of power in China his first task would be to reconstruct the Great Wall, as a kind of nation-building project and example of his power and authority. When I went to China in 2002, the government was engaged in a massive rebuilding project to restore the Great Wall and make it better available as a tourist attraction. The Wall isn’t only a tourist attraction though, it’s also a symbol of China’s continuity as a nation, and its resistance to foreign occupation. No surprise then that the communist government saw the same value in restoring it that previous Emperors did, even if the public face of it is for tourism rather than war.

The Judgment of Heaven: Something that is often overlooked in criticism of Mao’s Great Leap Forward is that China has always suffered from periodic famine, and its peasants suffered terribly from the policies of successive Imperial governments. This phenomenon was so pronounced that it even had a religious and political explanation – if famine or drought struck the land the Emperor was assumed to be out of favour with heaven, and had to go to a special part of the Summer Palace near Beijing to sacrifice some bulls in a special ritual to restore favour. Too long out of favour, and the Emperor would fall. When I was in China my guide, an Australian chap who spoke good Chinese and had spent years there, told me that the Chinese government is absolutely terrified of famine, and does everything it can to ensure there will never be a threat of starvation in China. In fact, for all the cruelties of its early years, the communist government deserves credit for being perhaps the first government ever in the history of China to end famine. There has been no famine in China since the Great Leap Forward, which is possibly the longest period in history that this has happened (don’t quote me on this!) The communist government values this judgment of heaven, and strives to maintain its good graces through a wide range of political and economic tactics… I think the 10 years since my visit have shown that they will go to great lengths to ensure an ordered transition to market mechanisms, guaranteed employment, etc.

The Role of the Mandarins: Imperial China was ruled by a tiny clique of public servants, who worked in a very ordered and structured system. One entered the service through passing tests, and there were strict levels and heirarchies, through which one ascended by carefully prescribed mechanisms. i.e. the Imperial court was pretty much exactly like the communist party that rules China now.

So, they had a huge revolution, 20 years of turmoil, and … nothing has changed. Except that the current government enjoys the favour of Heaven… Whether this government will last as long as some Imperial dynasties we will never know, but I’m willing to bet now that whatever replaces communism in China will show the same general principles.

It’s interesting that huge changes – reformation, revolution, turmoil, world-consuming war, famine, civil war, strife – can befall a country like Japan or China, but through it all they can maintain this strange coherency of political structures, even if on the surface they seem to have changed completely, or even been put in place in reaction against the previous processes. An interesting form of continuity…