Jonathan Fryer

Posts Tagged ‘China’

The Sindbad Voyage

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 1st January, 2015

imageAs someone who travels a huge amount, researching, lecturing and writing, I never lose the thrill of encountering new places and new peoples. But I’ve always been a bit mystified by travellers for whom the journey and the mode of transport themselves provide the adrenalin: round-the-world yachtsmen, balloonists and so on. But occasionally one such traveller manages to convey the essence of their passion in a book, as is the case with Tim Severin’s The Sindbad Voyage (1982). Severin had form, having travelled by motorcycle with Boris Johnson’s father Stanley from Oxford to Afghanistan while they were undergraduates, then later in a tiny boat made of animal hide across the Atlantic to prove that many centuries before Christopher Columbus early Europeans could gave done it. The Sindbad Voyage project was the most ambitious of all: to build a traditional Arab boom of the type Arab traders used in the ninth century and then sail it all the way to China, as Arabs did when Haroun Al Rashid was the Caliph in Baghdad and the T’ang dynasty ruled the Middle Kingdom. Severin was fortunate to get sponsorship from the Sultan of Oman, and it was in Oman that the craft was built. Omani sailors made up most of the crew, along with a motley collection of European volunteers and scientists. Though the number of places at which the ship made landfall was limited — notably India, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Singapore and China — the atmosphere of various ports is well captured. But essentially the book is a love song for the ship itself, the Sohar, with all its weaknesses as well as its strengths. And once again, Tim Severin had proved that something was possible.

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Britain’s Soft Power

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 11th February, 2014

Sir Martin DavidsonVictorian Britain was associated with gunboat diplomacy and there are still some people in this country who think of power in terms of military might. But since the Second World War, Britain’s “soft power” has been more in evidence, not least through the work of the British Council and the BBC World Service. The Council’s Director, Sir Martin Davidson, was the guest speaker at a Global Strategy Forum event at the National Liberal Club this lunchtime and underlined how the teaching of English abroad and the fact that so many foreign students come to the UK to study both help this country’s economy as well as its global  presence. Without overtly criticising the Government for not increasing the Council’s presence around the globe (in stark contrast to China’s Confucius Institutes, for example) Sir Martin did nonetheless point out that the negative coverage in the Indian Press of the immigration and visa debates in the UK had directly led to a fall in the number of students from India applying to study here. I asked him what the British Council is doing or could be doing to counter the pernicious influence of the Daily Mail, Daily Express and UKIP on our reputation not just in India but globally, without getting an entirely satisfactory answer; but of course to be seen publicly to criticise influential British media might be difficult in Sir Martin’s position. Politicians and journalists need not operate under such constraints, however, which is why I spend so much of my time offering an alternative British narrative to that served up in the right-wing red-tops or the Faragistas’ pubs. The UK does still have a degreee of soft power, though it is redcued because of reductions to the budgets of the British Council and the ludicrous decision to integrate the World Service into the main BBC new and current affairs output. That soft power is increased by our membership of the European Union and is often a force for good in the wider world, which is why those of us who believe that need to stand up and say so.

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Big Brother IS Watching You!

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 27th January, 2014

Big BrotherGus Hosein 2It’s incredibly easy and cheap to spy on people these days — wherever they are. That was the (depressing) core message of the presentation by Gus Hosein, Executive Director of Privacy International at an Association of Europe Journalists (AEJ) UK briefing at Europe House in Westminster this lunchtime. Technology means that just as George Orwell foresaw, Big Brother can and probably does watch all of us all of the time — only Big Brother could be of a variety of nationalities (or none, in the case of multinational corporations), not just those who, elected or not, in principle have a mandate to rule over us. What is more, a very significant proportion of the equipment used in this new surveillance world is manufactured by companies based in the UK. Gus Hosein identified three main areas of concern: (1) “Upstream collection”: for example the way that Google and others have agreed to allow access to electronic traffic by the NSA (US), GCHQ (UK) et al. By tapping into fibre optic cables underseas, they can literally monitor everything we send electronically, and GCHQ-monitored material captured off the coasts of the UK and Cyprus (sic) play an important role in this. (2) “Tailored Access Operations”: effectively, black ops done from a computer terminal which can compromise networks and computers anywhere in the world, through hacking and related techniques. They can, for example, turn on or off the microphone in your mobile phone without you realising. (3) “Sabotage”: the heavy stuff, which introduces “vulnerabilities” into supposedly secure systems. So can anyone have confidence in the security of any transaction by digital means? Alas, no. So who are the “baddies” in our surveillance world? Line up the usual suspects: Russia, China, North Korea, Iran, Israel — but also the US and the UK. Moreover, British companies have been selling the relevant surveillance technology to regimes such as Egypt and Bahrain (as I know, having been refused entry to Bahrain last time I landed there). So should we be worried? You bet. Particularly now we are in the age of what is known in the trade as “Big Data”, whereby what might appear seemingly innocuous information about us all is stored to make predictions about us (our likely purchases, as well as our beliefs or potential actions) that even we did not realise ourselves. And did you think it was smart to have a high-tech fridge or washing machine? Think again: it could literally be monitoring you and your movements. I asked Gis Hosein about drones, about which I have been quizzed at length on Iranian TV. Do we really need to fear the sophistication of new technology there as well? By now you won’t be surprised by the answer. “Drones can be flying hacking machines,” he replied, “which is what the police and security services would be interested in, more than mere surveillance.”

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Ed Davey, the EU and Climate Change

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 16th June, 2013

Ed Daveyclimate changeThe European Union has been leading the way in the global fight against climate change, not least thanks to the efforts of Liberal Democrat Ministers in the UK’s Coalition government, Chris Huhne and now Ed Davey. The latter was guest speaker at Merton Liberal Democrats’ summer garden party in Wimbledon this afternoon and restated his determination that the Paris summit in 2015 must seal a meaningful new treaty, to build on achievements so far. There are some member states that are dragging their feet — notably Poland, which still relies heavily on coal for its energy needs. But the UK is part of a group of 10 EU member states — dubbed the Green Growth Group — which are on the side of the angels in the related debate. Moreover, Ed has been buoyed by the appointment of John Kerry as Barack Obama’s Secretary of State in his second term, as Kerry was ahead of Al Gore in recognising the problems of global warming. Even China is sending out some reassuring signals. The problems of air and water pollution in China are immense, as a result of the country’s rapid industrialisation and relatively lax environmental supervisory standards. But public opinion in China has become increasingly vociferous about the health consequences for children — all the more acute give China’s ongoing (though modified) one child policy. Accordingly, the Chinese Communist Party has started to take note of ecological protests, instead of just suppressing them, as it realises that its survival in government may be at stake. Back home in the UK, it is the Liberal Democrats who have been keeping the Coalition government on track on climate change issues, despite the scepticism of certain Tory right-wingers. In next year’s European elections (which in London will coincide with all-out borough council elections) the LibDems must champion this success. Furthermore, Ed argued, we should not hold back in attacking UKIP, which is not only the home of many climate change deniers but also tries through its lies and distortions to undermine European cooperation with all its beneficial aspects for our common future. and

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Friendly Steppes

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 2nd June, 2013

Friendly SteppesNick RowanThe Silk Road, linking the empires of Rome and China, conjours up an atmosphere of mystery and exoticism by its very name. Actually, there were many branches of the Silk Road — just as there were many branches of the Great Wall of China — through a range of more northerly or southerly routes, binding West to East over the centuries. In 2006, the young Oxford graduate Nick Rowan (now working in the oil industry in London) spent four-and-a-half months travelling from Venice to Xian, in the hope of recapturing some of the spirit of intrepid traders of various nationalities, who would have spent considerably longer on their journeys, even if few covered more than one or two sections of the road. Inspired by the sights and sounds of Central Asia in particular, Rowan has written a travelogue recording his journey, during which he used many types of transport from buses to taxis to a clapped-out old ferry across the Caspian Sea, and even a few side excursions on horseback. Initially moving solo, he inevitably linked up with various people en route, both Western companions and, more significantly, interested locals. On the final leg of the journey, across China, he was joined by his younger brother. The resultant book is a mixture of travel diary and historical asides, as well as insights into aspects of economic and social development gained by contacts he had through an overseas aid charity. His narrative starts a little hesitantly — it is hard to say anything very new or remarkable about as well-chronicled a place as Venice — but he really gets into his stride when he reaches Iran and he encounters not only the architectural splendours of cities such is Isfahan, but also the engaging hospitality of the Iranian people, so different from what one might imagine if one just listens to Western propaganda. Turkmenistan wins the prize as the oddest country on his epic journey, but one senses that it is really Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan that win his affection. After them, China is something of an anti-climax. Reading Rowan’s book, one certainly feel one is accompanying him on the journey and can share his varying moods of excitement, frustration and boredom. He rather overuses certain adjectives (notably “stunning”), and a little tighter editing would have improved the text. But this is the account of a voyage that clearly was a type of rite of passage for the author and it is both enjoyable and informative for those who may never get closer to Kashgar or Samarkand than the comfort of their armchair.

Nick Rowan: Friendly Steppes: A Silk Road Journey, Hertfordshire Press, £14.95

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Turkey and the Arab Awakening

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 11th January, 2013

Kerim BalciMiriam Francois-CerrahEver since the revolutionary train swept across North Africa and the Middle East (MENA) pundits have been asking whether Turkey could offer a model for post-Revolution Arab states to follow, so maybe it was not so surprising that the Turkish Review (for which I occasionally write) should highlight the issue at its UK launch at the House of Lords earlier today. Three very diverse speakers were on the panel (chaired by the LibDem peer and former President of Liberal International, John Alderdice): the journalist Kerim Balci, the young Oxford academic and political writer Miriam Francois-Cerrah and Gulnur Aybet, who teaches at the University of Kent, as well as in Turkey and the United States. Each put a Gulnur Aybettotally different slant on the subject, Kerim Balci claiming (with some justification) that the so-called Arab Spring actually started earlier than in Tunisia in December 2010, in Kyrgyzstan, and that it is mirrored in various parts of Central Asia, China and India. What we are dealing with has a universal dimension, he argued. Miriam Francois-Cerrah declared that the majority of Arabs do see Turkey as a role-model, largely because it is a secular state that has nonetheless accommodated a variety of parties, including the AKP, with its Islamic origins. Gulnur Aybet emphasized that Turkey is seen by the West as a strategic partner in dealing with the MENA region, which maybe leads to a certain degreee  of wishful thinking as to how much of a model it can be. More a source of inspiration, stated Miriam Francois-Cerrah, echoing a line I have often taken. But in the meantime Turkey has itself all sorts of internal contradictions to overcome; Gulnur Aybet deplored the growing polarisation she has noticed. Certainly Turkey has an enviable economic growth rate and has many things going for it, but it is by no means a perfect state that others might necessarily try to emulate.

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Why the EU Needs to Integrate More

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 3rd January, 2013

José Manuel BarrosoIt’s 40 years since Britain joined the EU and siren voices among UKIP and the Tory right are arguing that it’s time to turn the clock back and pull out. They couldn’t be more wrong. On the contrary, this is the time for the EU to integrate more — as the eurozone now seems destined to do — and Britain should be an enthusiastic participant. In the 1950s it was clear to the Founding Fathers (sorry, ladies, they were all men) of what developed into the EU that a degree of economic integration, notably between France and Germany, was necessary to make wars between western European states impossible. That goal was so smoothly achieved that European peace is taken for granted, especially by the young. A second huge victory since 1989 has been the absorption of formerly Communist states of central and eastern Europe ino the EU. This year, Croatia will be the next. But there is an urgent reason why EU integration should move ahead, namely the way that the global economy is developing, with the rise of new heavyweights including Brazil, Russia, India and China — the BRICs. As EU Commission President José Manuel Barroso has rightly pointed out, by 2050 not a single individual European country will be among the world’s top 10 economies* — not even Germany. So in order to compete — indeed, to survive as an economic force — Europe must unite further and start operating more as not just a single market but also a single economic force. It would be madness for Britain to stay out of that, condemning itself to a form of offshore irrelevance. It is not the Europhiles in Britain who are unpatriotic, as some of our critics allege, but rather UKIP and the Europhobic Tory right who want to consign us to the role of an historical theme park. 

*A new entry at number 10, however, could well be Turkey, which makes it all the more important that Turkey be embraced into the European family.

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Misha Glenny on Cyber Crime

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 5th October, 2012

The writer and broadcaster Misha Glenny was the guest at the Association of European Journalists (AEJ) lunch at Europe House yesterday; many of us had worked with him at the BBC and elsewhere, mainly during the period when he was a leading authority on the Balkans. But as he explained at the lunch, by 2000 editors around the world had had their fill of the Balkans. Nobody was interested in the area anymore. 9/11 and its aftermath further sealed his fate as he then had to find a new area of expertise, which is why he has spent much of the past decade in the company of gangsters. Some of these were involved in traditional crimes, such as gun-running, people trafficking and prostitution (more details of which you can find in his books). But more recently he has tended to focus on cyber crime — hacking and the like. People engaged in this type of activity usually don’t need to resort to the violence employed by other sectors of the international criminal fraternity, and many of them are young. One of his star interviewees in recent research was a teenager in Sao Paulo, Brazil, who made millions in a short period of time. States, intelligence services and commercial companies also increasingly engage in cyber crime, be it cyber warfare — of the type that forced Estonia to shut itself off from the Internet for a while — or the deliberate infection of Iran’s nuclear facilities by US and Israeli cyber-operatives, and indeed the blitz on Western countries — including Britain — by China and Russia in particular. Most people tend to think of cyber crime in terms of phishing scams which result in one’s credit or debit card being hacked. But such offenses are piffling compared with the high level stuff being carried out by the real professionals, including extortion of banks and commercial companies by people who have the ability to bring down their whole IT system or steal all their contact lists, emails and future product specifications. Having brouht out his book on the subject, Misha Glenny can now turn to a much less dangerous project: the rise of Brazil as an emergent world power.

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The TeamEU versus China debate

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 8th August, 2012

There’s been a lot of chatter on twitter and elsewhere about the fact that were all 27 member states of the EU competing as TeamEU at London2012 then we’d be way ahead of China in the Olympics medals table. That is of course statistically true and it’s interesting to note that China’s population is more than twice that of the EU. However, it ain’t going to happen, at least for the foreseeable future, as the 27 EU member states are all sovereign states and the Olympics is one of the few occasions when their citizens can all get together and jump around waving their national flags. Besides, I think we should compare like with like. Thus is would be perfectly reasonable to compare TeamEU with TeamASEAN, as the 10 nations of South East Asia have also formed a regional organisation and coincidentally have a very similar combined population size to that of the EU. And if one does that then I’m sorry you guys from South East Asia, the Europeans have wiped the floor with you. But it’s important not to take that or any of this seriously. The Olympics are a time when normal life is put aside and we all get ino the spirit of things, with only mock national or regional rivalry. And of course, in ancient Greece, the athletes competing in the Games did not wear any identifying  sign or indeed anything at all. And if they won, they were rewarded not with a ‘gold’ medal but an olive sprig. Amateurism rules, OK!

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Tiger Head, Snake Tails

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 23rd April, 2012

Later this year, in the cavernous Great Hall of the People in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, the new top leadership of China will be unveiled. The so-called fourth generation will be stepping down — thanks to a two five-year term rule and retirement at the age of 69 — and we will know who are the fresh creme de le creme of the Communist Party hierarchy by the order in which the nine members of the Politburo’s Standing Committee walk out on stage. Most China-watchers believe that the new President will be Xi Jinping and the new Prime Minister Li Kechang, though one can never rule out a last-minute surprise. One absentee will be the Chongqing party chief, Bo Xilai — a high-flyer who has gone down in flames over an extraordinary scandal that allegedly involves the murder of British businessman Neil Heywood by Bo’s wife, Mme Gu, who is a figure straight out of pulp fiction. I am sure someone is busy writing the synopsis of a novel based on the affair right now. But in the meantime, anyone who wants to know what is going on in China, how it got where it is and where it is going could do no better than buy and read the latest book by Jonathan Fenby, former editor of the Observer and the South China Morning Post, whose Tiger Head, Snake Tails is a brilliant study of a country that might not yet rule the world (as Martin Jacques predicted in a book a few years ago) but is probably heading to be the world’s largest economy within a generation, providing it doesn’t trip up along the way. The fall of Bo Xilai happened after Fenby’s tome went to press, but otherwise it is admirably up-to-date. More importantly, it draws on many years of intelligent study and reporting in China and Hong Kong. It is full of statistics and telling anecdotes, but written in a style that successfully walks the tightrope between popular journalism and academe. It is thus accessible to the uninitiated and illuminating to old China hands. Highly recommended.

Tiger Head, Snake Tails, Simon & Schuster, £20

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